Freedom of the press in the Gulf has been under international microscopes, with restrictions that cost journalists jail time, or even their lives.
The brutal murder of Saudi journalist and author Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi government in 2018 undoubtedly put the spotlight on restrictions to press freedom in the region, an issue that is in no way unprecedented to the Gulf.
Khashoggi was an example of a larger issue. His dissidence and critique of the kingdom’s government, punished with murder inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, led to a global outcry and prompted urgent discussions on press freedom in the region as a whole.
Since no country in the Gulf features a Right to Information act, meaning citizens are not given the right to to seek information from the government or inspect its documents, many turn to media that has been sifted by local authorities to remain informed.
Nuances in media laws, detainment of journalists, and self censorship are all contributing factors to a poor media environment in the Arabian Gulf, all of which restrict journalists from upholding the truth and serving as a watchdog to corruption.
Instead, journalists are expected to sing their governments’ praises, and those who choose to ‘step out of line’ are faced with repercussions. This causes limitations on media and press independency as well as pluralism.
Qatar’s Al Jazeera has, without a shadow of doubt, shaped the region’s media landscape and has been described as a beacon of free press in the Arab world, where media outlets rarely showcase independence and critical analysis.
It has displayed adequate political and ideological pluralism through its different platforms, such as AJ+, and in a series of different languages as well.
However, journalists and citizens in Qatar often subject themselves to self censorship, especially on the internet. This is due to the 2014 cyber-crime law that criminalised posting “false news” online.
In 2016, Doha News was shut down due to alleged censorship of taboo subjects deemed to push the boundaries of what is accepted in society.
While freedom of expression and the press are constitutional rights in Qatar under Article 47 and 48, loopholes still exist.
Last year, a law published came under fire by international organisations for curbing freedom of expression.
The law allowed for the imprisonment of up to five years and fines of up to $25,000 for broadcasting, publishing or republishing “false or biased rumours, statements or news, or inflammatory propaganda, domestically or abroad, with the intent to harm national interests, stir up public opinion, or infringe on the social system or the public system of the state”.
Qatar was at the time under blockade and its sovereignty was under threat both militarily and through internationally coordinated propaganda campaigns.
Qatar’s domestic media landscape as well as Al Jazeera’s local and international presence has earned it a score of 128 on the 2021 World Press Freedom Index.
The barbaric extrajudicial murder of Jamal Khashoggi symbolised a new era of Saudi Arabia’s repression. As the overseas murder unfolded for the world to see, it was now clear that the kingdom’s crackdown on free speech had not only lost its moral limits, but its geographical boundaries as well.
Saudi Arabia stands as an outlier in the context of press freedom and is the only country in the Gulf Cooperation Council which does not constitutionally protect or codify freedom of expression. It’s 1992 informal constitution, the Basic Law of Governance, formally specified limits to free expression.
Under Article 39 of the kingdom’s Basic Law of Governance, “the media is prohibited from committing acts leading to disorder and division, affecting the security of the state and its public relations, or undermining human dignity and rights.”
Saudi journalists are under close surveillance both in the kingdom and abroad, and no independent media is permitted inside the country.
Those who voice criticism or analyse political affairs are liable to job termination or detainment under criminal code provisions, such as terrorism or cyber-crime laws, on charges of blasphemy, “insulting religion,” “inciting chaos,” “jeopardising national unity,” or “harming the image and reputation of the king and the state.”
Criticism of the ruling family can result in imprisonment or, such as in the case of Khashoggi, death.
In 2020, 24 journalists were imprisoned in Saudi Arabia.. Activists fighting for equal rights in the kingdom are not exempt from government censorship.
In 2018, Saudi women’s rights activist and influential figure Loujain al-Hathloul, alongside many others, was imprisoned for campaigning for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.
After gaining global traction, Saudi authorities were pressured to release Al-Hathloul earlier this year, though she is now subject to a 5 year travel ban, among other restrictions.
According to Reporters Without Borders, the number of journalists and citizen-journalists in detention has tripled since the start of 2017.
“Most are being held arbitrarily and are likely subjected to torture, which is almost systematic for prisoners of conscience.”
Saudi Arabia’s notoriety for silencing its press as well as virtually anyone who speaks out against its corruption has placed it at 170 in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index, right next to Bahrain, one of the lowest rankings in the world. In 2020, the Committee to Protect Journalists named Saudi Arabia the fourth worst jailer of journalists.
Bahrain has also gained notoriety for its abuse of press freedom. The neighbouring kingdom sits at a very low 168 in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index.
The kingdom’s 2002 Press Law permits imprisonment on grounds of critique of the king or religion, advocating for change in the system of governance, instigating crimes affecting state security, or the publication of false news.
In 2016, the minister of information issued Decree 68/2016 that increased government oversight of electronic media and strengthened government authority to prosecute content producers, further extending existing regulatory power under the kingdom’s 2002 Telecommunications Law.
In 2020, 6 journalists were imprisoned and since 1992, 3 have been killed.
Two were killed after facing torture in government detainment centres in 2011, and both were arrested amid civil unrest and pro-democracy protests against the government, as well as a government crackdown on independent reporting in Bahrain.
Since the 2011 Shia-led anti-government protests calling for reform, there has been an increase in persecution and censorship on accounts of dissidence in fear of inciting the overthrow of the Bahraini regime. Some opposition leaders of the 2011 protests are still behind bars.
Journalists and citizen-journalists in Bahrain are given long jail terms, sometimes even life sentences, on convictions of demonstrations, property destruction and support of terrorism.
In detention, there have been cases of mistreatment and torture towards journalists, with some even being stripped of their citizenship.
In a crackdown on free expression in 2016, Bahrain charged France24 correspondent Nazeeha Saeed with violating the country’s licensing law for journalists. Saeed was previously detained and reportedly tortured in 2011.
Since 2016, Bahraini journalists working for international media have also faced issues renewing their licensing.
In March 2020, Bahrain released 1,486 prisoners, but the releases have excluded opposition leaders, activists, journalists, and human rights defenders, some of which have remained behind bars for a decade just for participating in protests.
United Arab Emirates
Arbitrary detainment, indefinite prison sentences, and torture have been weaponised by the UAE in sustained attacks on freedom of expression.
Criticism of the Emirati government in regards to human rights issues has evidently led to charges of defamation, insult to the state or false information under the accusations of smearing the country’s image. Such accusations may result in long and often indefinite prison sentences.
The UAE is also no stranger to online surveillance of journalists, who often fall victim to its 2012 cyber-crime law. The nation has little to no tolerance for independent journalism.
In March 2017, award-winning human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor was sentenced to ten years in prison and a fine of AED 1 million on several speech-related charges including using social media websites to spread “false information, rumours and lies” liable to “harming the national unity” and smearing the image of the UAE.
Mansoor was held in an unknown location for over a year, with no right to counsel and only limited family visits. In May 2018, Mansoor was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Mansoor had previously called for the release of Osama al-Najjar, who was sentenced to 3 years in prison in 2014 under the Cybercrime Law for publicly defending his father on social media. His father was sentenced in the infamous UAE-94 case, a group of 94 individuals, mainly human rights defenders and political activists, imprisoned for between 7 and 15 years of on charges of “attempting to overthrow the government.”
Read also: Press freedom in Qatar: Where does it stand?
Al-Najjar was meant to be released in 2017, but was instead released in 2019 after his sentence was extended under the Counter Terrorism Law.
The constitution of the UAE guarantees free speech but, under the 1980 law on printed matter and publications, authorities have the power to censor local, or even foreign publications, if they criticise domestic policies, the economy, ruling families, religion or the UAE’s foreign relations.
When the Gulf crisis erupted in 2017, the UAE banned citizens from publishing expressions of sympathy towards Qatar, announcing punishments of a jail term of up to 15 years and a fine no less than AED 500,000 ($136,000).
With one of its previous demands being the closure of Qatar’s Al Jazeera broadcaster, the UAE has also proved its need to tug on the strings of external freedom of expression.
The UAE ranks 131 in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index. More than 25 prisoners remain in jail on account of peaceful political criticism, and many continue to be arbitrarily detained even after completing prison sentences.
The case of the permanent closure of independent newspaper Azamn in 2017, as well as the suspension of newspaper Al-Balad and magazine Al-Mowaten, highlights Oman’s lack of media and press pluralism, making for a homogenous media environment that does not tackle issues of corruption in the country’s system of governance.
Although there are independent and private media outlets, these platforms typically accept government subsidies and face punishment if found pushing political boundaries.
Self-censorship is common in the sultanate among all citizens, with journalists and citizen-journalists often subject to arrest and being held incommunicado.
In some cases, journalists are given long jail sentences on charges of insulting the head of state or the country’s culture and customs, or inciting illegal demonstrations and disruption of public order.
Under a penal code issued in 2018, penalties for slander of the sultan and blasphemy were maximised to 7 and 10 years in prison respectively, an increase of three years for both under the previous code.
In February 2019, activists Musab al-Thuhli and Haytham al-Mashayki were arrested for posts on social media that expressed support for the Palestinian cause and rejection of normalisation with Israel. Both served short detainment sentences.
In 2017, former diplomat and online human rights activist Hassan al-Basham passed away while in custody following his arrest in 2015 for posting “offensive social media posts.”
Oman ranks 133 in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index, going up from 135 in 2020.
Kuwait is known as the Gulf’s least repressive state. However, a 2016 cyber-crime law has come under fire for posing a threat to online journalists as well as bloggers, and was seen as an excessive restriction on freedom of expression via legislation.
In 2020, Kuwaiti authorities ordered the detention of a blogger and member of Kuwaiti freedom of expression group Mohamed al-Ajmi for posting comments criticising the Kuwaiti government and proposing amendments to the country’s publication laws, as well as commentary on the government’s treatment of stateless ‘Bidoon’ residents.
He was later released after a few days in detention.
Censorship on dissidence and freedom of expression in Kuwait is exemplified in the 2015 closure of Al Watan TV due to “anti-government” comments.
In 2018, Kuwaiti authorities ordered, in absentia, a 25-year jail sentence on Kuwaiti blogger and former columnist Abdullah al-Saleh for insulting Kuwait’s allies and “abusing Saudi Arabia.”
Kuwait ranks 105th on the 2021 World Press Freedom Index, and has gone up 4 slots since last year.