Defamation Laws In Saudi Arabia
In Saudi Arabia, the Ministry of Culture and Information has jurisdiction over defamation committed by the mass media. Saudi Arabia transferred jurisdiction over the media from the country’s court system, which is based on Sharia law, to the Ministry of Culture and Information, as authorized by the Press and Publications Law, under Royal Decree 1700/Mim Ba of March 15, 2005.
Saudi Arabia has no written criminal law defining defamation or any attendant penalties. Defining the elements of a crime and any penalty remains up to the individual judge’s interpretation of Sharia precepts (Sharia courts).
In addition, the Ministry of Culture and Information approves newspaper and television editors. It also heavily censors print and broadcast media. Internet critics crossing vague “red lines” face arrest. Saudi Arabia requires Net newspapers, blogs and forums to be licensed by the ministry.
Religious Defamation In Saudi Arabia
It is worthy to note that Saudi Arabia does not tolerate public worship by adherents of religions other than Islam. Saudi Arabia punishes religious defamation (blasphemy) ranging from imprisonment to death, depending on the severity of the crime committed.
By way of illustration, on 4 February 2012, Hamza Kashgari, a 23-year-old Saudi journalist for Al-Bilad newspaper in Jeddah, published a number of tweets reflecting an imaginary conversation with the prophet Mohammed. The tweets demonstrated both his admiration of and his trouble in understanding the prophet. Kashgari’s tweets included the comments: “I have loved things about you and I have hated things about you and there is a lot I don’t understand about you” and “I will not pray for you.” The tweets caused popular outrage, and within a day of being posted, there were more than 30,000 negative responses, including some calling for his death.
Under the Saudi legal system, Hamza will likely face the charge of apostasy. Apostasy is not defined in Saudi law because it is not a part of the written criminal law cannon. Apostasy texts scribed by Islamic jurists, which go back hundreds of years, set out a long list of apostasy elements and factors.
Recent religious defamation cases indicate that Saudi Arabia prevents members of other faiths from openly following their respective religion.
Defaming Public Officials Will Get You In A Lot Of Trouble In Saudi Arabia
An existing media and publications law prohibits publishing insulting and defamatory articles about individuals and government officials, as reported by the Saudi Gazette. The changes outlaw the publication of any article that violates Islamic law and the country’s Basic Law of Governance.
Update May 2013: Saudi officials are keen to limit the use of online messaging services, like Twitter. Unless authorities are granted permission to monitor certain people on the platform (presumably individuals with known anti-authoritarian sensibilities), they want the site blocked. Saudis are amongst the most active group of Twitter users, so if this initiative goes through, it could cause a rash of protests. As of this writing, no laws have been passed, but signs all point to a possible change of Saudi Arabia online law in the near future.