5-22-2013By Diana Sayed
Human Rights Defenders Program
The head of Saudi Arabia’s religious police has said anyone who uses Twitter “has lost this world and his afterlife.” Previously, the government-appointed imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca denounced Twitter as a “threat to national unity.”
You might think that social media are no match for police and petrodollars, but King Abdullah—who’s seen the Internet facilitate democratic uprisings in nearby countries—views Twitter and other platforms as a threat to his power, and with good reason.
Saudi Arabia has more Twitter users per capita than any other country in the world. Between 2011 and 2012, the number of Twitter users in the Kingdom grew by 3,000 percent, with users posting an average of 50 million messages monthly, most of them in Arabic. And not coincidentally, the rise of social media has corresponded with an uptick in pro-human rights activism. Protests are largely organized through Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, and dissidents use Skype to communicate with foreign human rights organizations and media networks.
It’s no wonder that spokesmen for the Saudi Interior Ministry have said that social media is a tool used by militants to stir social unrest. But the government’s assault on internet users is more than rhetorical. Authorities have detained and intimidated hundreds of online activists and commentators, blocked and filtered sensitive political, religious or pornographic content , and recruited online supporters to campaign against calls for protests, according to a Freedom House Report. In March, two leading activists were sentenced to 10 years in prison for a variety of offenses including “internet crimes” because they had used Twitter and other sites to criticize the government.
Last year, poet and journalist Hamza Kashgari posted tweets in which he envisioned conversations with Mohammed. Thousands of Saudis, including prominent clerics, called for his death, and after a failed attempt to flee, he was imprisoned for blasphemy. His was the rare case of persecution in Saudi Arabia that attracted international attention, but the spotlight has turned away and he remains behind bars.
Once government officials know who is posting what, they are unrelenting in targeting dissidents. On April 10, prominent women’s activist Iman Al-Qahtan, posted on her Twitter feed that she was closing down her account, writing “Oh dear mother I’ll stop just for you, goodbye!” Although her Twitter handle and account remain active, it is reported that Al-Qahtani has been subject to continuous harassment by members of the security forces. They have threatened her to put her jail and to target her family members if she did not stop her activism.
Last month the government-sponsored Arab News daily published a cover story condemning what it deemed “abusive” tweets. The article reported that Saudi authorities are discussing a plan to link Twitter accounts with their users’ identification numbers. Analysts say such a move may decrease the number of Twitter accounts by up to 60%.
On March 31, the Saudi Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) instructed Skype, WhatsApp and Viber to comply with local regulations or risk being shut down. This is just one example of the government violating anti-censorship laws under the guise of monitoring online activity. Last September, CITC announced that, for “national security” reasons, all pre-paid SIM card users must enter a personal identification number when recharging their accounts.
Until recently, Saudi authorities have largely resisted sweeping restrictions on internet freedom for fear of igniting a political backlash, but some of their recent moves—particularly the threat to link Twitter accounts to ID numbers—may be doing just that. A few weeks ago one of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent clerics, Salman al-Awdah, who has 2.4 million followers, Tweeted against this policy, saying it might create a “spark of violence.” Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who owns $300 million worth of Twitter shares, has said that any attempt to block social media platforms is a “losing war.”
It’s widely believed that the Saudi monarchy’s grasp on power is unshakable. This would seem to be the view of the U.S. government, which gives this brutal, authoritarian regime unconditional support. But the increase in Twitter-fueled activism is clearly making the rulers nervous.