The Saudi state broadcaster has brazenly laid bare the authorities’ determination to suppress free speech online, by interviewing a man jailed for a single tweet that he “hadn’t expected” could land him in prison and clearly signalling that nobody is safe on social media in Saudi Arabia.
The Thursday night programme “Blind Spot” interviewed five social media users now in prison for cybercrime offences, including one man – unidentified and shown only in silhouette, to a soundtrack of sinister music – jailed for a single tweet that he had believed to be innocent. He now realised, he told the interviewer, that what he thought was mere “criticism” was a criminal offence.
Article 6 of Saudi Arabia’s 2007 Anti-Cybercrime Law sets a penalty of up to five years in prison and/or a fine of three million riyals ($800,000) for vaguely defined cybercrimes including “the production, preparation, transmission, or storage of material impinging on public order, religious values, public morals, or privacy, through an information network or computer”. The anonymous interviewee added (and the interviewer clarified) that where “incitement” was involved the sentence could go up to 15 years.
The Saudi authorities have long used both this law and the even more draconian Counter-Terrorism Law to suppress free speech online. They have sharply escalated their crackdown since mid-2022, with the courts issuing a slew of lengthy prison sentences for peaceful online activity, including against Salma al-Shehab (27 years), Noura al-Qahtani (45 years) and Abdullah Jelan (10 years). Others already serving lengthy prison terms in Saudi Arabia for such peaceful activity include Abdulrahman al-Sadhan (20 years).
The TV programme’s Orwellian mission statement says that “with the transformation phase that the Kingdom is witnessing, Blind Spot clarifies the topics that touch the citizen’s living reality by presenting the missing information in a curious way”. However, since the interview did not explain the nature of the prisoner’s offending tweet or how it fell foul of the law, only that he “didn’t expect it could possibly land him in jail”, viewers were left with the clear message that virtually any online activity is a potential cybercrime.
ALQST’s Head of Monitoring and Advocacy Lina AlHathloul comments: “It is telling that this episode has since been deleted by Al Saudiya. In contrast to the authorities’ rhetoric of liberal reform, which is heavily geared towards an international audience, this cynical broadcast shows they are more determined than ever to punish free expression, and makes it perfectly clear to Saudi citizens that nobody is safe.”