From cartoons depicting remotely controlled protesters to claims that traditional herb chewing "induces" homosexuality, coverage of dissent in the Saudi Kingdom is becoming increasingly untenable.
An opinion poll on the website of the Saudi foreign ministry reveals that 75 percent of Saudis do not trust the Kingdom’s media. Instead, many resort to the international press to find out the truth about events in their country.
Lately, calls have been issued to boycott some newspapers because of their biased coverage of certain local issues. One of these calls came from residents of Qatif, an area in eastern Saudi Arabia, after al-Yaum newspaper published a cartoon last month by Mahmoud al-Hamthani in which he called peaceful protesters “subversives associated with foreign agendas.”
The cartoon which angered Qatif residents depicted a protester with a transmitter on his head controlled from a distance through a remote control. It cle arly accuses protesters in Qatif of sabotage and of being used by foreign actors to implement a foreign agenda.
The provocative drawing came on the heels of the alleged murder of four young men who participated in a peaceful protest in Qatif at the hands of security forces.
As soon as the cartoon was published Qatif residents raised calls for a boycott of the newspaper. They also called for new media to represent their view of events.
As such, social networking sites have become a more effective platform for Saudi citizens because they are uncensored. “That is why online activists have become faster in transmitting the truth and interacting with it than local newspapers that reflect their owners’ views,” tweeted lawyer Walid Abu al-Khair.
Malik Fatil, a journalist working for al-Yaum, resigned in protest after the cartoon was published.
“It did not only insult specific individuals, it targeted Qatif in general. The name of the region was clearly mentioned under the cartoon,” he said. “The people expected an apology from the newspaper’s management. When that did not happen, sales in the area dropped after the boycott call.”
Al-Yaum did not face legal action despite having insulted Saudi citizens. By contrast, Okaz newspaper faced legal action after it published a report saying that the chewing of khat, a sedating herb local to the Arabian Peninsula, is common in the city of Jazan in southern Saudi Arabia.
The Okaz report published on November 18 asserted chewing khat leads to the spread of homosexuality. As soon as the report was published, online campaigns were launched to boycott the newspaper and punish those responsible for publishing the article.
Saudi authorities responded quickly by dismissing the editor Muhammad al-Tunisi. An official apology to the residents of Jazan was also published in the newspaper.
In a third incident, some editors and writers of the official press led a campaign of unprecedented incitement against sixty Saudi intellectuals and human rights activists who had signed a statement condemning the security escalation in Qatif.
The signatories also demanded that the government form a committee to investigate events in Qatif and called for the repeal of sentences given to reformers arrested on political grounds in Jeddah five years ago.
All the local papers got involved in this campaign, which featured accusatory articles described by some observers as being “more like security reports.” Al-Madina newspaper in particular did not hide its intention to incite the statement’s signatories, entitling one of its articles “A Notification to the Prosecution...New Agitators Under the Guise of Reform.”
The activists’ statement was the first of its kind for the Kingdom and addressed two issues. The first was circumstances surrounding the bloody events in Qatif. The second was the rejection of the sentences given to the Jeddah reformers, who demanded wider freedoms and supported protests making the same demands.
One of the statement’s signatories, human rights activist Walid Salis told al-Akhbar “attacking us is an organized effort, but it will not stop the reform process going forward.” He also rejected the tactic of using religion in political affairs.
For Salis, the attack on the reform statement’s signatories is reminiscent of an article by Hassan bin Salem about “new McCarthyites.”
One such example of this “new McCarthyism” was an article written by novelist Samar al-Muqrin for al-Jazirah newspaper. In one blow, the story simultaneously accused the Sunni reform signatories of supporting al-Qaeda and the Shia signatories of supporting Wilayat al-Faqih (the Guardianship of the Jurist) – the basis of Iran’s Constitution.
In a phone interview al-Muqrin stressed the “impartiality of the Saudi judicial system in the case of the Jeddah detainees charged with ‘an attempt to overthrow the regime and having links with al-Qaeda.’”
When asked about the Amnesty International report which described the detainees as political prisoners and demanded their release, al-Muqrin replied that Amnesty International “is not neutral and owes allegiance to Hezbollah and Iran.” The Saudi novelist also reiterated her rejection of the reform statement and an earlier statement calling for a constitutional monarchy saying, “I don’t think we need it now.”
A stark contradiction governs the Saudi press. Articles in newspapers are devoted to attacking Saudi society instead of criticizing the regime’s policies. We are yet to see an exception to this rule in the Saudi press. This prompted one of the signatories of the reform statement, Muhammad Said al-Tayyeb, to tweet “I thought the era of the press chorus had ended.”
At the end of last week, a group of hackers calling themselves Jazan Hackers hacked the Facebook and Twitter accounts of al-Tunisi, the former editor of Okaz newspaper, changing his picture and name on both accounts. The hackers said they did this in retaliation for their report about the prevalence of khat chewing in the Jazan region.