Kingdom announces new Web publishing law

Online newspapers, blogs and forums will now need to register with the Ministry of Information and Culture for licenses to operate, according to new regulations that the ministry announced Saturday it is to introduce. The new system, which will be introduced in a month’s time, has been discussed by online newspapers and bloggers who say the attempt to regulate online media in the same way that the Kingdom’s print publications are regulated is not workable. The regulations also specify punishments in case of violations. These include the obligatory publishing of corrections, fines and bans for various time periods, including total bans. Applicants for licenses need to be Saudi, no less than 20 years of age, have high school certificates in the least and documents testifying to their good behavior. Online newspapers also need to employ editors in chief who have been approved by the Ministry of Information and Culture. Abdul Aziz Khoja, minister of information and culture, said that the system is “in line with the development moves that the media sector is witnessing.” He added that the rules do not include any clauses restricting freedom of speech and that the ministry is eager to ensure there is transparency. He also said that the rules will be made open to improvement in the future.

Turki Al-Rougi, editor in chief of Al-Wiaam Online newspaper, said that the rules are welcome as they specify a particular government department that will be in charge of online media. He, however, added that there is fear that the regulations might be misused to restrict freedom of speech. Al-Rougi said the Ministry of Information and Culture wants to implement the rules governing the print media on Internet websites and that this is not workable. He added that the drawbacks of the system will be discussed with the ministry at a seminar that is to be held on Monday at the Riyadh Literary Club. “The fines could be as high as SR100,000 and SR50,000. The owners of websites simply cannot afford them as they are individuals unlike the print publications which are owned by establishments and businessmen,” said Al-Rougi, adding that the new system neglects mentioning visitors to websites. Trad Al-Asmari, who blogs about poverty, unemployment and social justice in the Kingdom at alasmari.wordpress.com, said the system will remain “ink on paper” because it is “not applicable.”

“There are already contradictions in the system. It says that the person needs to have a license for his website and at the same time the person is actually applying for a license,” said Al-Asmari who won an award — “Reporters Without Borders, freedom of expression” — for his blog. He added that the system would work for online newspapers but not for blogs, forums or Twitter. He also wondered whether it would be a requirement to ask the Ministry of Information and Culture for permission to post on Twitter or Facebook. “What we hoped for is a chance for the media to obtain a self-controlled system not that of a government one,” he said. – Arabnews