Saudi bloggers face backlash over Tunisia protest

Saudi bloggers could face a wave of reprisals after new laws restricting online news reporting failed to prevent a wave of protest at the country's decision to accept former Tunisian president Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali.

The new Executive Regulation for Electronic Publishing Activity, which came into force on 1st January, bans many from writing about news. Chat room users are encouraged to register with the government - and internet users faces strict rules which do not allow them to criticise Islam or compromise public order.

News blogs, internet news sites, 'sites containing video and audio materials' and content created for mobiles and smart phones are all covered by the law.

Almost all on-line content produced in the kingdom is now defined as 'electronic publishing' placing news-related blogs under the same legal restrictions as newspapers.

On-line news sites, including news-based blogs, must obtain a government licence - and "include the call to the religion of Islam" in their content, as well as abiding strictly by Islamic Shari'a law.

Saudi bloggers now face severe restrictions on the subjects they're allowed to cover - effectively giving authorities an excuse to shut down blogs at will.

Only those with full Saudi citizenship are allowed to blog about news or current affairs, in a country where 31 per cent of residents are non-citizens, many of them poorly paid migrant workers from south Asia. News bloggers must also be over the age of 20, and have a high-school degree.

In addition, they must also provide authorities with detailed information on their internet hosting company enabling the government to block access to specific domains, or to force hosting companies to pull offending websites off-line.

Non-citizens can still blog on non-news topics, but all bloggers - as well as those posting comments on Internet forums - have been "recommended" to register with the Ministry of Culture and Information.

In spite of the restrictions, Saudis flocked on-line to protest at their government's decision to welcome Tunisia's former president Ben Ali, the Financial Times reported at the weekend.

Saudi users bombarded micro-blogging site Twitter with messages using the hashtag #sidibouzid - the town at the heart of the Tunisian revolution - helping to spread news, pictures and videos of the protests in the country.

Reaction among some Saudi bloggers to the new restrictions has been angry, with at least one popular English-language blogger declaring in a post that he would not register.

Elsewhere Saudi Arabia faced condemnation from Human Rights Watch's Christoph Wilcke, who said, "What little freedom Saudis have gained in expressing their views online, what little vibrancy Saudis have enjoyed in their media, this regulation shuts down. They provide a fig leaf of legality for government suppression of burgeoning, uncensored on-line expression in the kingdom."

Saudi Arabia has a history of attacks against press freedom. Two activists are currently being detained without trial after publishing what Wilcke describes as "news unfavourable to the government".

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