Saudi Gov Releases New Law for Online Media

It’s finally here.

After months of uneasy waiting and gestation, the Saudi ministry of culture and information (MOCI) has bestowed its new law for regulating online publishing upon us. According to the state news agency, minister Abdulaziz Khoja has approved the addition of a new set of rules and guidelines to the current publishing law concerning the new forms of publishing on the Internet and mobile phones.

Before delving into some of the highlights of the new old law -new in its terminology, old in its spirit- allow me to congratulate the ministry on their exquisite sense of timing. Although the law has been in the works for months, the first few signs were made public on the country’s national day back in September, and now the details of the law are released on new year’s day. The ministry knows this is exactly how we want to start the second decade of the millennium.

The ministry of culture and information, being on the cutting edge of all things tech, has made the new law available for download as a Word document on their website here. If you have not been following this story, here is some background.

Now let’s take a look at some of the articles in the law. Some of the expressions and sentences may sound very clunky, that’s because I’m trying to stick to literal translation.

The first article is basically a list definitions. Boring. The second article details the forms of electronic publishing that the new law covers, and those include:

  1. Electronic journalism
  2. Websites of traditional media (tv, radio, newspapers, magazine, etc)
  3. Forums
  4. Blog
  5. Websites displaying audio and visual material
  6. Electronic advertisement
  7. Broadcasting via mobile phones (messages, news, ads, pictures, etc)
  8. Broadcasting via other messages (messages, news, ads, pictures, etc)
  9. Personal websites
  10. Mail lists
  11. Electronic archive
  12. Chat rooms
  13. Any other form of electronic publishing that the ministry may choose to add

Obviously, MOCI wants to extend its control over everything. No surprise here; government bodies in general are well known for their obsession with control. The weird thing is that they also want to regulate advertising online, plus two other things that I don’t really understand: broadcasting via other messages and electronic archive. What are they talking about?

MOCI are kind enough to tell us of the goals behind this new law:

  1. Supporting benevolent electronic media
  2. Regulating the activity of electronic publishing in the Kingdom
  3. Protecting society from malpractices in electronic publishing
  4. Declaring the rights and duties of workers in electronic publishing
  5. Protecting the rights of individuals to create and register any form of electronic publishing
  6. Protecting the rights of individuals to petition concerned authorities in the case of grievance
  7. Support and patronage of the ministry for electronic websites and their employees by facilitating their work

This is MOCI’s rationale for why they think this law is such a great idea. It is not, according to most people I’ve talked to. Protecting society? I don’t recall hearing the society screaming for help. Protecting individuals’ rights to publish online? Hey, we kind of have been doing this for a while now, and we really don’t need your protection and/or permission. Instead of trying to support the newly born online media, why don’t you try to improve the state news agency and television channels? They have been barely surviving on life-support for a long time.

The fifth article lists the forms of online publishing that need permission:

  1. Electronic journalism
  2. Websites of traditional media (tv, radio, newspapers, magazine, etc)
  3. Electronic advertisement
  4. Websites displaying audio and visual material
  5. Broadcasting via mobile phones (messages, news, ads, pictures, etc)
  6. Broadcasting via other messages (messages, news, ads, pictures, etc)

The sixth article lists the forms of online publishing that may be registered:

  1. Forums
  2. Blogs
  3. Personal websites
  4. Mail lists
  5. Electronic archive
  6. Chat rooms

Apparently this is the distinction that Abdul Rahman al-Hazza was talking about in September of last year. Bloggers do not need permission, but they may register if they want. Why would any blogger do that is beyond me, but if I understand this correctly, the distinction does not mean anything because whether you register or not you would still be operating under this law. That means the government, or anyone else, really, can use the law and its stretchy articles and loopholes against you in court if they believe you have violated any of them, and the punishment can be very severe.

The seventeenth article of the law details the penalty of violating any part of this law, which includes monetary fines and blocking your website, partially or completely, temporarily or permanently.

I have no plan to register my blog with MOCI, but if you are considering that choice you probably want to know that not anyone can do this as they please. To register, a Saudi citizen must be at least 20 years old with a high school degree or above, and if you plan to launch a so-called “electronic newspaper,” the ministry must approve of your editor-in-chief, just like they do for dead tree newspapers. The law says the editor is held accountable for all content published on the website, but says nothing readers’ comments. Is the editor also held accountable for those?

Another worrying piece in the law says those who get permission must provide the ministry with the information of their hosting company. We can conclude from this that MOCI won’t simply block your website for readers inside the country, but they can also deny access to your website from anywhere by forcing the hosting company to take your site offline altogether. Scary.

What do you think about all of this? Discuss.

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MOCI’s stupid law is ready

MOCI are done working on their new law for regulating news websites. A spokesman for the ministry said the new law will also apply to websites of print newspapers, but the ministry does not plan to pre-approve their editors like they do with the dead tree news organisations. If the websites break the regulations, he added, they will be blocked. I guess that’s what this is all about. Making it easier for MOCI to block websites that they don’t like. The kind of enthusiasm and energy MOCI has put into this dumb idea is amazing. I only wish they would put this amazing effort into something more useful. But hey, that would be expecting way too much of them.

Sketchiness

A news website published a sketchy story about Saudi female journalists — and all hell has broken loose, according to Tareq al-Homayed. Hedayah Al-Darwesh, chief editor of the website, strongly denied publishing the story, but it seems to me that they simply took it down after 13 female journalists lodged complaints to the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Culture and Information, the Human Rights Commission and the Saudi Journalists Association.

The incident gave Turki al-Sudairi and other old timers a great chance to attack online media. As head of SJA, he called MOCI and CITC to “regulating the issuing of website and online newspaper licenses.” Whatever that means. But hey, what do you know? Minister Abdul-Aziz Khoja said last week that the government intends to enact legislation for websites to require official licenses to be granted by a special agency under the purview of MOCI. Yeah, good luck with that.

I hate to be the first one to break the news to al-Homayed, al-Sudairi, Khoja, and the rest of the dead tree folks, but if we have learned anything from being online for the past ten years is that you just can’t control regulate the internet. I share the hope of John Burgess that the Minister floated this idea in response to the pressure resulted by this ridiculous incident. But even if he was serious about it, the truth is that we will have yet another one of those unenforceable laws that needlessly complicate the lives of everyone here.

I mean, seriously, can MOCI with all its bureaucracy handle this? Moreover, let’s assume that they can actually handle this, don’t they have more pressing issues to care about like fixing the failing state TV channels, open licensing for radio stations, and end censorship on books to name a few?