Saudi author arrested for tweeting

Social media and self-censorship

He writes books about sex, religion and politics, is critical of Islamism...and lives in Saudi Arabia. Gulf News reports that the novelist Turki Al Hamad had been detained last month, did not come as a surprise.

However, it was not a book, but a tweet that broke the camel’s back.

On  22 December, Al Hamad - whose novels are banned in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait -  wrote :

@TurkiAlHamad: Our Prophet has come to rectify the faith of Abraham, and now is a time when we need someone to rectify the faith of Mohammed.

In a country like Saudi Arabia, there is nothing more dangerous than religion. Faced with the world’s fastest growing population of Twitter users, the government is making clear that it will not tolerate theological debate online.  

The arrest of Al Hamad contradicts the image of Saudi’s relatively liberal Twittersphere. The New York Times’ October 2012 article, “Saudis Cross Social Boundaries on Twitter,” argued social media has brought new freedoms to Saudis:

Open criticism of the state has long been taboo in Saudi Arabia...But after the Arab uprisings in early 2011, Saudis began taking to Twitter in vast numbers to express their frustrations, offering a new window into an opaque and profoundly conservative country...critics of various kinds – from prominent lawyers to feminists to ordinary citizens – have acquired large followings as they deplore corruption and injustice. Most Saudis now seem to post under their own names and photographs, a bold step away from the timid anonymity of the past.

Saudi’s are certainly active online and it is true they do criticise corruption and oppression. But Twitter is also subject to a great deal of self-censorship. There remain “red lines,” and religion is a major one of these.

The Saudi royal family has long been extremely hostile to differing religious interpretations. They have long repressed Saudi Shi’as. Shocked Muslims worldwide watched last year as the Saudi government bulldozed religious sites in Mecca, which did not fit their strict interpretation of  religion. Now, this campaign is turning its attention online.

In April 2011, a royal decree was passed, cracking down on electronic communications that insult Islam. In December last year, Raif Bedawi, a 30-year old website editor  from Jeddah, was condemned to death. His crime - setting up a website in which users could discuss the difference between “popular” and “politicised” Islam. This month, Saudi writer,  Hamza Kashgari, was arrested for tweeting about the Prophet Mohammad.

Tweeters and bloggers may be allowed to complain about the government, but to debate Islam would be to debate the very basis of the state. The royal family relies on legitimacy conferred from the clerics. The state was founded on the fundamentalist Wahhabist school of Islam. It is this school that justifies the Saudi king as the rightful “guardian of the holy places.” Court rulings — used to control dissidents — are rooted in unmatched freedom to interpret religious laws.

With the detention of such a prominent figure as Al Hamad, the  House of Saud is indicating that religion can’t be questioned, even if its only in 140 characters.  As Eman al-Guwaifly wrote, the message they are sending is:

If we have arrested Turki al-Hamad, who has not been writing anywhere except Twitter, then none of you is safe.

Photo: Getty
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How the Saudis are making it almost impossible to report on their war in Yemen

The conflict is not getting anything like the media attention it deserves.

This article has been co-authored by Ahmed Baider, a fixer based in Yemen's capital Sana’a, and Lizzie Porter, a freelance journalist based in Beirut who is still waiting for a chance to report from Yemen.

Ten thousand people have died. The world’s largest cholera epidemic is raging, with more than 530,000 suspected cases and 2,000 related deaths. Millions more people are starving. Yet the lack of press attention on Yemen’s conflict has led it to be described as the “forgotten war”.

The scant media coverage is not without reason, or wholly because the general public is too cold-hearted to care. It is very hard to get into Yemen. The risks for the few foreign journalists who gain access are significant. And the Saudi-led coalition waging war in the country is doing its best to make it difficult, if not impossible, to report from the area.

Working in Sana’a as a fixer for journalists since the start of the uprisings of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011 has sometimes felt like the most difficult job in the world. When a Saudi-led coalition started bombing Yemen in support of its president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, in March 2015, it became even harder.

With control of the airspace, last summer they closed Sana’a airport. The capital had been the main route into Yemen. Whether deliberately or coincidentally, in doing so, the coalition prevented press access.

The media blackout came to the fore last month, when the Saudi-led coalition turned away an extraordinary, non-commercial UN flight with three BBC journalists on board. The team – including experienced correspondent Orla Guerin – had all the necessary paperwork. Aviation sources told Reuters that the journalists’ presence was the reason the flight was not allowed to land.

The refusal to allow the press to enter Yemen by air forced them to find an alternative route into the country – a 13-hour sea crossing.

After the airport closure in August 2016, an immensely complex set of procedures was created for journalists travelling on the UN flights operating from Djibouti on the Horn of Africa into Sana’a. The level of paperwork required offered only a glimmer of hope that the media would be allowed to highlight the suffering in Yemen. Each journalist’s application required visas, permits, return ticket fees of $1,100 per person (later reduced to $250) and a great deal of bureaucracy.

But there were other issues, too: equipment that all journalists take with them to war zones as standard – flak jackets, helmets and satellite phones – were not allowed on the UN flights, increasing fears about operating in the country.

The new arrangement significantly increased the cost and time involved – two things that most media organisations are short of. A team of two would have to budget for several thousand dollars for a week-long reporting trip. This was limiting for even large media organisations with big budgets.

Still, the system worked. A few journalists started to come and cover the situation from the ground. Yemenis were happy to share their stories. On one assignment to villages on the west coast, people ran to talk to us and show us their malnourished children as soon as we arrived. It was obvious from the look in their eyes that they wanted to tell people what had been happening.

That changed after last October, when three or four large international media teams had reported from Yemen, broadcasting images of starving children and bombed-out homes to TVs around the world. The Saudi-led coalition began refusing to let journalists fly in with the UN. They said that the flights were for humanitarian workers only, or that the safety of journalists could not be guaranteed. Members of the press who had been preparing trips suddenly had their plans quashed. Time assigned to reporting the conflict had to be given to more accessible stories.

Over the next few months, media access was again opened up, only to be followed by U-turns and further paralysis. And when the Saudi-led coalition did grant access, it was only under certain, excruciating conditions.

As well as a press visa granted by the opposition authorities in the capital, from February this year, journalists have required a second visa granted by the Saudi-backed government in Aden.

It felt impossible. Why would they give press visas for journalists to visit opposition territory? The doubts were proved correct when trying to convince Hadi government officials to issue press access. The consular envoy in Cairo refused. A call to their team in London resulted in another “no”. 

This meant applying to the authorities in Aden for secondary visas for the tenacious journalists who hadn’t already been put off by the cost and access hurdles. One example of the petty requirements imposed was that a journalist’s visa could not be on paper: it had to be stamped into his or her passport. Of course, that added a week to the whole affair.

After months of media blockade, journalists were finally able to access Yemen again between March and May this year. At present, members of the media are officially allowed to travel on the UN flights. But how many more times journalists will be refused entry remains unknown. Not all crews will have the resources to make alternative arrangements to enter Yemen.

The New Statesman interviewed one French documentary producer who has reported from Yemen twice but who has not been able to access the country since 2015, despite multiple attempts.

Upon each refusal, the Saudi-led coalition told the journalist, “to take commercial flights – which didn’t exist…” he explained, requesting anonymity. “Saudi Arabia and its coalition are doing everything they can to discourage journalists as well as organisations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.”

He said that blocking media access was part of the Saudi-led coalition’s strategy to “bring [Yemen] to its knees in an atmosphere of silence and indifference.”

Access is not the only problem. Reporting in Yemen carries great risks. The British Foreign Office warns of a “very high threat of kidnap and unlawful detention from militia groups, armed tribes, criminals and terrorists”. It specifically mentions journalists as a group that could be targeted.

Editors are increasingly nervous about sending journalists into war zones where kidnap is a significant danger. The editorial green light for arranging assignments to Yemen is – understandably – ever harder to obtain.

Although they are willing to work with recognised press teams, the Houthis and Saleh loyalists have also been known to be suspicious of journalists.

“Even before the Saudis banned access to Yemen, it is important to remember that Yemen is one of the most difficult countries for journalists to access,” added the anonymous journalist.

The amount of press attention dedicated to Yemen simply does not reflect the extent of country’s suffering and political turmoil. Journalists’ rights groups, international organisations and governments need to step up pressure on Saudi Arabia to ease media access to the country.

The coalition last month proposed that the UN take control of Sana’a airport, which it refused. Whoever runs it, the hub must be opened, so that journalists can get in, and Yemenis desperately needing medical treatment abroad can get out.

Failing this, coupled with the extreme risks and costs of reporting, the world will never see the graves of 10,000 people. Yemenis will continue to die starving and invisible, in destroyed homes.