Saudi Arabia: Expanding anti-blasphemy laws to social media content

Saudi Arabia is considering updated regulations that criminalize insulting Islam. Saudi news outlet Al-Watan reported that the appointed Shura Council will study the potential for new laws to “combat the criticism of the basic tenets of Islamic sharia” over the next two months, given recent “violations over social networks on the Internet” of existing anti-blasphemy laws.

The announcement of the Shura study comes four months after Saudi journalist Hamza Kashgari was detained for certain tweets about the Prophet Mohammed. Blasphemy can be punishable by death under current Saudi law. Kashgari recanted his statements, deleted his account, and fled the country to avoid the death penalty, but he was extradited from Malaysia and currently awaits trial.

Twitter was blocked in Saudi Arabia until 2008, and use has skyrocketed since then. In June of this year alone, the number of users grew by 3000 percent. While Twitter remains important for facilitating online dialogue about political reforms in the country and the broader region, tension arises when politics become especially intertwined with religion. Many new Saudi Twitter-users are religious clerics; Mohammad al Arefe, a conservative Islamic scholar, has 1.8 million followers.

Saudi news analyst Jamal Khashoggi said that if new regulatory proposals come out of the study, the public and the media should be able to give input. He told Al-Watan, "I don't want anything to affect my freedom and we don't want Saudi Arabia to be another Iran."

China: Intermediary video-hosting websites forced to self-censor videos

On July 9, the Chinese State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT) has published new censorship guidelines that require video-hosting websites to pre-screen videos for vulgar, violent, or pornographic content. SARFT handed down the new rules as part of published answers to reporters’ frequently asked questions about video content. The stated goal of the policy is to protect Chinese youth and promote higher quality videos over those with “poor style.”

While content regulation is nothing new in China, the intermediary liability for user-uploaded content creates a new challenge for websites. The SARFT article does not describe how the administration will enforce site owners’ liability for outside user-generated content. Many larger Western video-hosting websites, such as Youtube, are already blocked in China, and larger sites already hire pre-screeners who examine uploaded content. The liability rule will mainly affect smaller Chinese video hosts that have fewer resources to devote to pre-screening uploaded videos.

Sweden: Teliosonera agrees to independent review of its human rights risk profile

The Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR) has engaged with Swedish telecom giant Teliasonera in order to “support and review its human rights impact assessment.” The forthcoming report will review freedom of expression and privacy issues within Teliasonera’s operations, and will also assess its “consequential mitigation plan” for any negative impacts.

Teliasonera’s image with respect to human rights issues requires a serious makeover after the release of the exposé documentary ”Black Boxes” by Swedish news show Uppdrag Granskning. Teliasonera affiliates in post-Soviet countries such as Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Uzbekistan would provide local and national law enforcement agencies with unfettered access to users’ private calling data, text messages, and location information—even without a court order. At the time, Teliasonera maintained that their policy was to comply with law enforcement requests in all instances. Unfortunately, authoritarian regimes in politically tumultuous countries do not always build the laws themselves in such a way that considers due process for citizens.

Eija Pitkänen, Head of Corporate Responsibility at Teliasonera , stated in a press release that the company was pleased to work with DIHR, and that it would “gain from their respected human rights expertise and at the same time get valuable third party input.” It remains to be seen how DIHR’s human rights appraisal process will prevent law enforcement agencies from requesting unlimited user data from telecom companies, unless Teliasonera is willing to shift its business to markets in countries with stronger legal privacy protections.

United Arab Emirates: Online activist deported to Thailand without legal charges

Emirati blogger Ahmed Abdul Khaleq has been stripped of his residency and deported to Thailand after having been detained since May. Khaleq was one of five online activists to be detained and arrested for “threatening state security” in April of last year. The activists were freed by a presidential order at the end of 2011, but it appears that the charges against them had not been officially dropped. Khaleq has not been charged with any new crimes for this most recent detention and deportation.

The Abu Dhabi public prosecutor’s office is reportedly investigating a group suspected of plotting "to commit crimes against state security.” Unlike other countries in the region, the UAE has seen more online calls for political reform than street protests. Still, law enforcement authorities have sharply increased web monitoring of groups urging for democratizing measures. In Khaleq’s words, activists have been detained and deported because they “talked about the rights of the stateless people in the UAE.”

Related Issues