Monday, January 07, 2008

Saudi blogger Fouad al-Farhan imprisoned without charge

The father-in-law of detained Saudi Arabian blogger Fouad al-Farhan has visited him in a Jeddah prison where he has been held for 27 days without charge. It was the first time Saudi authorities had allowed access to al-Farhan who runs a blog that discusses local political and social issues. The National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) has cited Saudi law saying he should now be given access to a lawyer. While authorities have not outlined the reason for his detention, the Saudi interior ministry said al-Farhan was being held for "interrogation for violating non-security regulations".

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) wrote a letter on 2 January to King Abdullah protesting against al-Farhan’s month-long detention without charges. The CPJ found it “deplorable that Saudi authorities would continue to hold our colleague in near secrecy after nearly a month” saying it violated the most basic norms for free expression. They also said the detention ran counter to official Saudi statements in support of reform and a more open press. They urged the king to “use all his influence” to ensure al-Farhan’s release.

Fouad al-Farhan took the dangerous step of refusing to hide behind a pseudonym. The 32 year old al-Farhan blogs in Arabic at “AlFarhan” and has also posted in the English-language group blog Good Morning Jeddah (though not since 2006). He describes his mission as "searching for freedom, dignity, justice, equality, public participation and other lost Islamic values.” The site has now been transformed into a campaign for his release. AlFarhan is one of the most widely read blogs in Saudi Arabia.

Fouad al-Farhan is one of the pioneers of Saudi blogging. He was born in 1975 in Taif, in western Saudi Arabia, and received his higher education in the US. Al-Farhan has been a reader of blogs since the beginning of the blogging revolution. With his own blog he wanted to express his “freedom, ideas, and hopes, publicly”. But he did it too publicly for authorities’ liking. On 10 December al-Farhan was detained by Saudi security agents at the Jeddah office of the IT company he owns. Security agents later visited al-Farhan’s home and confiscated his laptop. It is not known where he is being held and police have provided no reason for his arrest.

Al-Farhan was expecting to be arrested. He sent an email to friends in the week prior to his arrest where he said he received a phone call from the Saudi interior ministry. The call said to prepare himself “to be picked up in the coming two weeks” for an investigation by a high-ranking official. Al-Farhan wrote in the email why he thought he was about to be arrested: “The issue that caused all of this is because I wrote about the political prisoners here in Saudi Arabia and they think I’m running an online campaign promoting their issue.” The e-mail is now posted on his blog.

Al-Farhan is the first Saudi blogger to be arrested. There are an estimated 600 bloggers in Saudi Arabia writing in English and Arabic. They are male and female, conservative and liberal and mostly blog anonymously. The biggest problem writers in Saudi Arabia face is the country’s conservative religious establishment. They act as a powerful lobbying force against progressive coverage of social, cultural, and religious matters. Actors in this field include official clerics, religious scholars, the religious police, radical revivalist preachers, and their followers. Government officials will appease this religious constituency by dismissing editors, blacklisting dissident writers, ordering news blackouts, and admonishing independent columnists to deter undesirable criticism especially over religious issues. This is price Saudis pay for the long-term alliance between the ruling Al-Saud family and followers of the 18th-century cleric Muhammad Ibn Abdel Wahab, whose strict teachings form the basis of the country’s official Wahhabi doctrine. The Al-Sauds wield political power while the Wahhabi clergy provide spiritual authority in return for bestowing legitimacy to the Al-Sauds rule.

The result is that Saudis are free only to speak about religion and politics in non-Saudi publications or other venues. Because public gatherings and political parties are banned, Saudis need to be creative in order to speak candidly about the administration or the religious authorities. Therefore they discuss issues in venues such as private homes, in salons or discussion groups known as “diwaniyas”, in coffee shops, on satellite television, or increasingly, on blogs.

With its population of 23 million, Saudi Arabia has one of the highest internet penetration rates in the Arab world. Blogging provided a platform for women to criticise their male-dominated society. Meanwhile the now defunct Religious Policeman written by an anonymous Saudi living in Britain, exposed the hypocrisy of the kingdom's Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, (religious police) who enforce the country's strict Islamic moral code. Unsurprisingly his blog was banned in his homeland. Appearing on Reporters Without Borders “internet enemies” list, Saudi Arabia’s censorship is rife and targets pornographic content, Israeli publications and homosexuality as well as opposition websites.

Saudi political censorship is in direct contravention of Article 19 of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights which that all people have the right to freedom of opinion and expression including the right "to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." Unsurprisingly the autocratic Saudi regime prefers the out clause that Islamic nations put into the 1990 “Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam” which states that “everyone shall have the right to express his opinion freely in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the Shari’ah”. As Fouad al-Farhan has found out, there but for the grace of god goes free speech in Saudi Arabia.

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