On April 29, 2011, Saudi King 'Abdallah issued a decree announcing amendments to five articles of the kingdom's Press and Publications Law, first enacted in 2000. The amendments focus on an article banning the publication of anything "harmful to the reputation or dignity of individuals." Unlike the original law, which banned publications affronting individuals in general, the new version explicitly specifies public figures and members of the religious establishment, beginning with Saudi Arabia's chief mufti. It also specifies new, harsher penalties for violators.
It would seem that the new law is part of the Saudi regime's preparations for the possibility of a popular uprising like those that have occurred in other Arab countries.
Some Saudi columnists said that the amendments violated freedom of expression, while others said that the new law would have positive implications for the media.
The following are the most significant of the amendments, and some reactions to them in the Saudi press:
Ban on Insulting Members of the Government and the Religious Establishment
"1. Article 9 shall be amended as follows:
"All persons responsible for printed materials will ensure that their criticism is objective, constructive, in the public interest, and based on facts and verified testimonies, and are barred from publishing in any form any of the following:
"a. Anything that violates Islamic shari'a or [other] laws in force.
"b. Anything calling for breaches of state security or its public law, or anything serving foreign interests to the detriment of national interests.
"c. Anything harming the reputation or dignity of, or slandering or insulting, the Grand Mufti of the Kingdom, members of the Senior Clerics Council, dignitaries of the state, or any of its functionaries, be it a person or a legal entity.
"d. [Anything] promoting religious extremism and schism among citizens.
"e. [Anything] promoting or inciting to crime.
"f. Anything harming the collective good of the state.
"g. Details of investigations or trials without obtaining the approval of the [relevant] legal authority.
"2. Article 36 shall be amended as follows: The ministry [of communications] is authorized, according to need, to censor any published material without compensation, if it is found to contain anything banned from publication as specified in Article 9 of the law.
"3. Article 37 shall be amended as follows:
"a. One or more higher committees shall be established – headed by an expert in legal matters and staffed by a legal advisor and a member of the media – to probe violations of the law and implement the penalties specified therein..."
Fines and Writing Bans for Violators
"4. Article 38 shall be amended as follows: ...Anyone who violates the provisions of the law will face one or more of the following penalties:
"a. A maximum fine of 500,000 riyals [roughly $133,000], to be doubled should the offense be repeated.
"b. Violators will be barred from writing in all newspapers and publications and/or from appearing on satellite television.
"c. The [media outlet] where the offense was committed will be shut down or subject to temporary or permanent censorship. In the case of a newspaper, its closure will be effected pending approval from the prime minister. In the case of an electronic newspaper or website, its closure or subjection to censorship will be implemented by the [communications] minister.
"d. In cases where erroneous information or accusations are published regarding those specified in Clause 3, Article 9, the violator shall publish a press apology in a manner to be decided by the committee, at [the violator's] expense, and in the same [media outlet] where the offense was committed.
"Cases involving an affront to Islam or harm to the supreme interests of the state, or cases that harm the penal code, which is under the authority of the legal system, shall be referred by the committee – by reasoned decision – to the [communications] minister, who will present it to the King, for consideration of measures to refer the case to the courts or to take a decision according to the public interest..."
Saudi Communications Minister: The New Law Will Not Impinge on Freedom of Expression
In an interview with Alarabiya.net, Saudi Communications Minister Dr. 'Abd Al-'Aziz Khuja said that the amendments would not limit freedom of opinion and expression, contrary to press laws in other countries, nor would it grant immunity to anyone.
He added that the penalties that it specified applied equally to all the country's journalists, and pointed out that 500,000 riyals was the maximum fine for violators, which would only be imposed in severe cases. All journalists have the right to express their various opinions, he explained, but not to publish libelous or slandering remarks about anyone.
London-Based Saudi Daily: The Amendments Limit Our Freedoms
An op-ed in the London-based daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi stated: "...The government's amendments to the Press and Publications Law... restrict freedom of expression to a significantly greater extent and impose brutal penalties for any writer or publisher who violates the law, [including] a maximum fine of roughly $133,000... It should be stressed that no one wishes to do anything that would harm the shari'a or endanger state security.
"However, the ban on criticizing public or state figures means that newspapers will be turned into official leaflets and be removed from their role as a fourth authority, whose main job is to point out the defects of the state and of society, expose corruption, and speak out against senior officials who overstep their authority and commit errors detrimental to the state and to society...
"The new amendments are general and vague, and they can be interpreted in accordance with the government's stance. What does 'breaches of state security' mean? What does it mean to be accused of 'serving foreign interests to the detriment of national interests,' and what are the boundaries of the latter? The ceiling of freedoms in the Arab Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the lowest in the Arab region and even the [entire] third world. Among the 200 countries rated in the Press Freedom Index, the kingdom is rated in the last third, and it has more than a quarter million unlicensed media websites.
"The scope of freedom of the press and freedom of expression must be expanded rather than [further] limited. The issuing of these severe amendments now of all times emphasizes that the Saudi people still has a long way to go of it before it reaches its goal and achieves the longed-for democratic reforms, [already achieved by our] brothers in Egypt and Tunisia, and soon [to be achieved by our brothers] in Yemen, Libya, and Syria."
Only Press Freedom Will Allow Journalists to Do Their Job
In an article in the Saudi daily Al-Watan, titled "The Severe Penalties Are Not in Line with the Journalists' Freedoms," columnist Dr. 'Abdallah Al-Fawzan wrote: "...How will an experienced writer react... after reading the penalties [specified in the new law]? Won't he be confused... and scared, write a dull text... [or even] avoid working in the field [of journalism altogether], seeking [instead] a source of income that does not entail such grave danger?
"[And] if this is what an experienced and professional journalist will do, what will a novice journalist do?... How can a novice journalist, whose monthly salary is less than 4,000 riyals, pay [a fine of] 500,000 riyals? How could he bear this, on top of being dismissed from his job, having his mouth sealed with red wax till the end of his days, and being prosecuted and sentenced to prison and flogging?...
"There is no doubt that guarding people's honor and not harming their reputation is an extremely important matter, as is the security of the homeland... And there is no doubt that some newspapers and websites have, of late, consistently harmed certain people and crossed many red lines... However, the press is the fourth authority, which civilization invented not to keep silent but to publish, and its function can be likened to that of the streetlights in the cities and on their roads at night. It is a job that must be done... Therefore, there is no choice but to provide so-called 'freedom of the press,' which encourages writers and journalists to do their job and gives them a sense of security..."
Saudi Columnist: Some Saudi Writers Have Exploited Their Freedoms
In an article in the Saudi daily Al-Watan, columnist Wahib 'Abd Al-Fattah expressed a different opinion: "...I expect the amendments to yield many positive results, despite the negative feelings of some journalists. The amendments will contribute to the creation of a new media reality in which the media community will take responsibility [for its actions], and which in the future will help to forefront that aspect of the media that we strive [to showcase] in our press...
"The amendments did not come out of a vacuum, but are meant to fill the void [that existed in the original law]... and to realize the principle of 'responsible freedom,' which prevents the negative results we are seeing today and which are manifest in the exploitation of this freedom by some... We must [ensure] quality journalism that will be the eyes of society and the state, help improve processes, and direct the attention of every senior official to areas where errors [have been made].
"That said, I oppose the freedom to attack senior officials which [is enjoyed] by some of our newspapers, and which hinders the activities and abilities of these officials, putting them in a state of tension and fear of what the press will write in its criticism of their decisions. This causes [them] to issue faulty resolutions that do not achieve the desired aims. Therefore, the existence of a law banning attacks against [any] senior official by a writer or journalist, unless he has irrevocable and unambiguous proof, is the only guarantee for responsible journalism that is mindful of its important role in our state..."
 Asmarna.net, November 29, 2000.
 In the version of the law passed in November 2000, this article prohibits "harming people's dignity and freedoms, blackmailing them, or harming their reputation or business reputation." Asmarna.net, November 29, 2000.
 Alarabiya.net, May 1, 2011.
 Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), May 1, 2011.
 Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), May 14, 2011.
 Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), May 10, 2011.