The Saudi Arabian Press and the Management of Islam

If there is one country we should know more about than we do, it is Saudi Arabia. But in order to get a better idea of what it is like in Saudi Arabia, it is useful to first understand how the media works and more importantly how it is controlled by the government. 

A compilation of some research and a brief overview are provided here:

In Saudi Arabia, religion is not just a part of life – it is a way of life.  The Islamic faith defines the law and culture of the country.  Day to day life is lived, by almost the entire population, with strict adherence to Islamic principles and religious doctrine.  The media cannot exist outside of this.  Just as the government of the country is structured to preserve and promote Islam, the media is created and controlled to do the same.  Dissent is not tolerated.  Censorship is routine.

Through an exploration of the media in Saudi Arabia, it becomes apparent that while a strict interpretation of Islam dominates society, its dominance is maintained by the sophisticated and zealous management of the people and their faith by the ruling monarchy.  The media, with its potential to raise alarm, expose wrong, and encourage change, is thus subject to tremendous scrutiny and governmental control.  What an analysis of how the media developed and is controlled in the county can demonstrate, is how the society can remain so devoted to Islam, resistant to change and afraid of outside, influencing forces. 

In Mass Media in the Middle East, Kuldip R. Rampal argues:

As anywhere in the world, the Saudi Press is the product of the country’s political system.  The Kingdom has no constitution, parliament, or elected bodies of any kind.  As a result, no principle of freedom of the press exists, and there is little opportunity for popular participation in the administration of the country.  Not only is the political system an absolute monarchy, ultra conservative in outlook; it is also based on the Quranic law of the Sharia.  The country’s vast religious establishment therefore has strong influence on the political and social life through its strictest interpretation of the Sharia. (259)

The media, as opposed to being a “watchdog,” is more of a “cheerleader” for both Islam and the ruling monarchy.  The press is by no means secular, as its main objective is to help communicate religion to the people.  Many Saudi Arabians believe that Saudi Arabia is “the keeper of Islam” (Rampal 259).  The country is in the centre of many countries whose people practice the Islamic faith and it is home to the two most holy cities in Islam – Mecca and Medina.  Anders Jerichow, in his book The Saudi File, says:  “When a Muslim government bans a book, closes down a play, or jails a writer, and justifies these acts by appeals to ‘Islam,’ it is the orthodox articulation of the Sharia that it has in mind” (63).

 

Today, Saudi Arabia has a number of radio, television and print media.  This has not been easy.  The Ulama, religious leaders in Saudi Arabia, have resisted the introduction of media into the country.  The Ulama retain a lot of power in the country and the king and royal family usually consult them before making any decisions regarding policy or development in the Kingdom (Jerichow 68).  “The Ulama act as a powerful brake on political and social change,” argues Jerichow (68).  The Saudi government has faced opposition from the Ulama in regard to “the introduction of the telephone, radio, television, satellite dishes, female education, de facto banking, and civil regulations that supplement the Sharia” (68).  Because the government knew that many religious leaders opposed the media, they had to demonstrate the advantages of media, in the first case radio, as a religious teaching tool.  “Ilon Saud, the Kingdom [of Saudi Arabia’s] founder, won over the Ulama in the 1920s with a two-way demonstration transmission of readings from the Holy Quran between Mecca and Riyadh” (Rampal 248).  Then, as today, “Radio and television are closely controlled to insure that neither runs afoul of the Ulama” (Jerichow 68).

 

Control, however, is not easy.  Since the introduction of media, the objectives and the regulations governing it have been very clear.  King Abdul Aziz set up his own private radio network in 1932 to keep his officials informed of events in the Kingdom (Facts on File Database).  The first radio programs for the public followed in 1948 and the Saudi Radio Broadcasting Service emerged to help control the transmissions.  In 1964, the Riyadh broadcasting Station and the Call of Islam station began transmissions (Facts on File Database). 

 

Press and publication laws were initiated in 1963 and they continue to govern the media today.  Rampal explains the law:

It states that the press is private and the government has no right to interfere except to protect “general welfare.”  The phrase “general welfare” has not been defined specifically for purposes of the law, but it is generally understood to mean that journalists may not write anything that is likely to cause friction between the government and citizens or adversely affect “each citizen’s duty towards his religion, country or community. (Ministry of Information, 1991. Rampal 255) 

In addition to creating a press law, “control of the media is achieved primarily through the Ministry of Information, which has the national news agency and the broadcasting services under its control and is responsible for applying the censorship regulations” (Rampal 254).  A censorship committee, which is made up of government officials, reviews all media broadcasts and publications, including those from abroad, according to the policies of the state (Rampal 256). 

 

In addition to regulating and censoring material, Rampal writes:

Most of the news in Saudi Arabia is gathered and distributed by the government-controlled Saudi Press Agency (SPA) established in 1970.  Operating under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Information, its primary function is to centralize and bring regional and national news to the different channels of information inside and outside the country. (258)

 

Due to such extensive controls, the media predominantly consists of cultural and religious programming.  Prayer calls are broadcast over the radio.  Children can watch religious programs to learn about their faith.  Women can listen to radio shows that help them better care for their Muslim families.

 

Douglas A. Boyd describes the different radio programs available to the Saudi people in his book Broadcasting in the Arab World.  The General Radio Program:

…originates from the studios in Riyadh and Jidda….Intended to be the country’s main domestic and international Arabic radio voice, the General Program is structured so that special programs appropriate for military personnel, children, women, students, and house wives are aired at appropriate times. (143)

 

The Holy Koran and the Voice of Islam radio stations both broadcast religious content, though the latter is more oriented toward news and information (144).  The Voice of Islam often provides readings from the Koran as well as religious lectures and serious discussion of religious issues (144).  In addition to these programs, there are International Foreign-Language Programs, which also focus on Saudi culture and Islam, and there is a European Service directed at a European audience.

 

While International news is reported, it is composed to satisfy the demands of Saudi Arabia’s media guidelines. 

The treatment of events outside the Kingdom and the Arab world is far more candid.  Protecting the interests of Islam and its adherents always comes first, even at the expense of objectivity.  Such treatment of issues becomes understandable, however, in view of the fact that the Saudi government is trying to mold the society around a Quranic base. (Rampal 258)

 

Rampal explains that Saudi Arabian broadcasting is very sophisticated and well financed.  “The state-owned Broadcasting Service of Saudi Arabia (BSSA), a department within the Ministry of Information, holds a monopoly of public broadcasting” (248).  

 

While radio programs reach the most amount of people in Saudi Arabia, the British Broadcasting Corporation estimates that there are 4.5 million radio sets as apposed to 3.25 million television sets in the country, the daily newspaper circulation is 1,060,000.  Hussein Y. Amin and Leo A. Gher, calculated the circulation of newspapers in their book Civic Discourse and Digital Age Communications in the Middle East, as well as noted that the literacy rate in the Kingdom is 63 percent (116). 

 

Newspapers must also adhere to strict guidelines.  Rampal writes:

Under the law, all newspapers must be printed and published by licensed press establishments.  These are nominally independent, but the chairs of their boards and editors of individual publications are appointed, and may be dismissed, by the government, which must also approve all other board members…. The government may revoke a licence or stop a newspaper from publishing. (255)           

Private news ownership of media is allowed, but publishing must occur from a licensed organization.  In addition, all material must be approved by a censorship committee, and “A Saudi government policy statement of 1982 requires that all newspapers refrain from criticizing the government, the royal family, or the clergy” (246).

 

An editor who overlooks information that should have been censored will lose his job and may be imprisoned and prevented from ever writing or publishing again.  Reporters Without Borders have reported two cases in the last few years of editors who were forced to resign, after facing home confinement and prison time, due to material that criticized the government.

Compliance with the wishes of the royal family and the demands of religious leaders, therefore, are the first considerations of a reporter.  In addition, newspapers regularly receive guidelines from the Ministries of Information or Interior on government positions on controversial issues. (Rampal 258)

 

Despite the restrictions on the printed press, there are many newspapers and magazines in Saudi Arabia.  Many of the media organizations publishing newspapers are owned by Saudi princes.  “Incorporated in 1978, the London-based Saudi Research and Marketing Company (SRMC) currently publishes over 15 daily, weekly and monthly publications….The organization is owned by Prince Salman bin Abd al-Aziz” (Jerichow 204).  The Al-Hayat Press Corporation, also based out of London, with branches in Riyadh, Jeddah, New York and Paris, publishes a very influential Arabic daily al-Hayat.  Al-Hayat is also online.  It is owned by Prince Lt Gen Khalid bin Sultan bin Abd-al-Aziz, who served as commander and chief of the Arab forces in the first Gulf War (Jerichow 204).

 

Of the ten daily newspapers in Saudi Arabia, seven are in Arabic and three in English.  Six of these newspapers are based in Jeddah, the administrative capital and commercial center; two in Riyadh, the royal capital; and one each in Mecca and Dammam.  The leading Arabic-language newspaper is Al-Riyadh, which has a circulation of 140,000 during weekdays (Saturday-Thursday) and 90,000 on Fridays. (Rampal 246)

The government also publishes several weeklies, which are sold abroad to promote Saudi Arabian developments and culture. 

 

While both radio and newspapers are strictly regulated, the government is most concerned with television. Television has wide appeal and many turn to it for entertainment.  The 1982 information policy also applies to television:

The policy prohibits the following: anything that opposes or offends Islam, preaching and advocating of other religions, the customs and rituals of the people other than Muslims, the showing of alcoholic drinks or people drinking or referring to it in the dialogue, scenes or words about pork and bacon, religious pictures, and all nude statues.  The policy also prohibits scenes of kissing, embracing, adultery, and scenes liable to arouse sexual excitement.  It also bans scenes of bars and clubs, drug taking, and dancing except folklore and national dancing in decent clothes. (Rampal 256)

Since most Western television programming contains most, if not all of these prohibited images on a regular basis, television was met with much criticism by religious leaders.  It had the potential to corrupt the nation, they argued.  When King Faisal was assassinated in 1975, many believed it was because he allowed television to flourish in the country (Boyd 148).  As with radio, television was advertised, this time by King Faisal, as a medium to promote religion (Boyd 154). 

 

Boyd argues that there were several reasons why it became necessary in 1963, for the government to introduce a national television system.  The government wanted to appear modern, they wanted to thwart the threat of outside news and entertainment programming, they wanted to improve education, basic health and literacy training through television, and they wanted to promote national unity (146).

 

Certain content norms were, and still are, used in television programming.  Boyd explains:

News and other information about the royal family and the country itself could be-and was, and is- placed first on the news: the royal family and ranking government dignitaries have thus always been assured a great deal of exposure on the medium.  The government believes moreover that it must regulate cultural trends toward modernization, and controlled television is one means of expressing and affecting, often indirectly, the prevailing mood. (158)

Just as foreign print news is censored, all television programs are censored.  Most Western programming is thus prohibited or will be aired only after offending scenes have been removed.

 

Boyd writes that King Faisal’s death stopped the movement towards positive media initiatives: “King Faisal’s death came when his leadership was badly needed in the Kingdom.  He was a moderate who had attempted to balance social progress with the constraints imposed by conservative Islamic beliefs” (148-149).              

 

As technology develops, the government reacts accordingly.  “The current Saudi government policy does not allow cable television in the country, and the programming via satellite dish is also illegal” (Rampal 251).  This, however, does not seem to be preventing thousands of Saudis from using satellite dishes which can be seen on rooftops in the cities, writes Rampal.  With satellites, the population has access to programs such as CNN, Star TV from Hong Kong, and the BBC (251).

 

Boyd notes that the government is also using new technology to promote news from the Kingdom.  Many news sites are now available online (171).  “The entire Arab world has an estimated online population of 780,000 (Gher and Amin 136). 

 

The government, as it has with all other media, reacted promptly to the imposing online threat.  Reporters Without Borders reports: “The government has invested heavily in security systems to block access to sites it deems offensive, said to range in subject matter from religion to swimwear.  In February 2002, the authorities closed down more than 400 sites without giving clear reasons for the move.”  Human Rights Watch describes that the government has developed sophisticated technology to censor the Internet as it does the newspapers and television.  If a browser goes to a banned site, he or she will receive a message indicating that the government does not approve.  Muslim values, customs and traditions are said to be at risk and thus according to the government the controls are necessary. 

 

Reporters Without Borders adds however: “Unauthorised Internet access has been possible through Bahrain and U.A.E.  Two-thirds of Internet users are said to be women, possibly a result of restrictions on their movements.”

 

 The Internet may prove to be a very important tool for women in Saudi Arabia.  Though they have the right to obtain an education, they are mainly restricted to studying areas that “suit their nature” (Doumato).  Censorship and control of the media is widely practiced to preserve values of Islam in Saudi Arabia and this includes controlling women and preserving their roles as wives and mothers.  Amnesty International explains that women must always be covered in an abaya and veil.  They cannot speak to non-family members who are men.  They cannot drive and they need permission from a male family member to travel.  It is thus extremely difficult for women to be journalists.  But as Sally Buzbee reports in the Columbia Journalism Review, more and more women are entering the profession, using technology to help cross barriers.

 

Once nonexistent and still technically outlawed under the country’s strict version of Islam, Saudi women journalists now routinely write for both Arabic and English language newspapers.  Even as they abide by the strict rules governing what women can do, these journalists are pioneering a new type of journalism focussing on topics of interest to Saudi readers, but almost never covered in the past, especially social problems such as divorce, inadequate schools, and abuse of maids and other women.

In order to do their job, writes Buzbee, the women have a separate office at the newsroom.  Some men will not speak to them on the phone so they have begun to fax them questions.  Some women deliver surveys to obtain information from men without coming in contact with them.  They are also using e-mail and the Internet to do research.  These freedoms are very important for women in the Kingdom because not only are there new jobs available for women, but women are covering stories that will help inform, educate and maybe improve the lives of other Saudi Arabian women.

 

Jerichow argues that it will become increasingly more difficult for the government to control information as technology progresses and becomes more prevalent.  He sees the potential for change when the people become exposed to more information that has not been filtered and blacked out for their viewing and reading.  He writes:

Because of continuing government interference, religious pressures, and technological advances, which are widening informational choices available to Saudi media consumers, the Saudi domestic media are steadily losing market share in the increasingly competitive market…. Surveys indicate that Saudis are inveterate TV watchers and get most of their international information from television.  Because of pallid programming offered by domestic television, most Saudis who can afford satellite dishes now get their news from outside the Kingdom. (207-208)

 

The government, since its inception, has managed the media in every way possible.  Now that this task is becoming increasingly difficult, what kind of affect could un-censored media have on the Saudi Arabian people?  Will outside information degrade the morals and values of the Muslim people as the government predicts?  Or will it lead to long overdue reforms that would help the people achieve new levels of freedom?  No one is certain but access to other forms of information may help the Saudi Arabian people to decide for themselves, a privilege, they have not yet known.


Sources Cited

 

1)    Rampal, Kuldip R. “Saudi Arabia.” Mass Media in the Middle East. Ed. Yahra R.Kamalipour and Hamid Mowlana. Greenwood Press: London, 1994.

 

2)    Jerichow, Anders. The Saudi File: People, Power, Politics. St. Martin’s Press: New York, 1998.

 

3)    Boyd, Douglas A. Broadcasting in the Arab World: A Survey of the Electronic Media in the Middle East. Iowa State University Press: Ames, 1993.

 

4)     Gher, Leo A. and Hussein Y. Amin. Civic Discourse and Digital Age Communications in the Middle East. Ablex Publishing Corporation: Stamford, 2000.

 

5)    Buzbee, Sally. “Beyond the Veil.” Columbia Journalism Review. Online: New York, Sep/Oct 2001.

 

6)    Doumato, Eleanor Abdella. Getting God’s Ear: Women, Islam, and Healing in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Columbia University Press: New York, 2000.

 

7)    http://hrw.org/advocacy/internet/mena/saudi.htm (Human Rights Watch)

 

8)    http://www.amnesty.org/ailib/intcam/saudi/report.html (Amnesty International)

 

9)    http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=1487 (Reporters Without Borders)

 

10) World News Digest. Facts on File Database. Online. 1980 – 2003.

 

11) http://www.saudiembassy.net

 

12) http://www.al-bab.com/media/docs/saudi.htm

 

 

              


Many words in Arabic are spelt differently by different scholars.  I have kept the original spelling from the author and so spelling may differ throughout the essay.

 

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