140 Characters Make You A Terrorist
The following originally appeared on the Dissident Blog, a project of Swedish PEN.
Saudi Arabia remains one of few countries untouched by the wave of democratic uproar that swept through the Middle East. The reason? According to one Saudi journalist, who chooses to remain anonymous, it’s the monopoly that the ruling royal family holds over the media—a monopoly that seems to be showing some cracks.
I remember calling the Saudi human rights lawyer Waleed Abulkhair from a European capital city to ask him if he thought my life would be in danger if I returned to Saudi Arabia after publishing articles criticizing its human rights and political situation.
“The Saudi government can only shackle their own people, but can do nothing to a foreigner,” Waleed told me in a phone conversation, suggesting that, if I held a western nationality, it might protect me from harassment by Saudi authorities. He continued, “Many European opinion writers criticized the Kingdom, but none have been punished. This regime can only take its strength out on us.”
His words still resonate in my head.
Today, that same man languishes in a dark prison after being indicted by a variety of charges, including discrediting the Kingdom.
Waleed refused to take opportunities to escape Saudi Arabia despite all the harassment he had experience by police and security forces, so as not to be accused of being supported by the west. He did not want people to think that his political and human rights awareness was inspired by the west or coming only from abroad, which the regime claims has nothing in common with the local culture. Waleed decided to stay in the kingdom, as he believed the struggle for human rights and reforms were worth it. He was trying to bear everything in order to show that his endeavors to establish a better country stemmed from conscience as a citizen.
But the dictatorial regime has no other power than to shut the mouths of its people and cut off the heads of its opponents.
After the Arab Spring revolutions, nothing terrifies the Saudi regime more than 140 characters on Twitter by a political reformist or anyone who dreams of a brighter future. The fear those first tweets caused was sufficient justification for the regime to introduce a new law against terrorism, which is now used against anyone calling for a constitutional monarchy or other reform. This law was used by the security court in Riyadh to sentence Waleed to fifteen years in prison.
Saudi authorities’ are able to control the dissemination of information to an extreme degree. During the Gulf War of 1991, the Saudi population did not know about the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait until three days after the war broke out. The royal family and the ministry of information banned all local media from mentioning anything about it There was a war next door and no one knew about it!
I talked to senior journalists who witnessed those days. They talked about fears spreading among media professionals working at the national television and local newspapers, to the extent that the voice of the weather forecaster was trembling whenever he talked about the climates of Kuwait and Iraq.
The Saudi rentier state has—since its founding at the beginning of the last century—sought to create a parish rather than a citizenry. The welfare system has been created without demanding people pay taxes; it has covers all expenses through oil revenues. By following such a system, the regime can ensure grateful “subjects” to the royal family rather than “citizens” claiming voting rights.
The royal family forgot that the new millennium will provide new tools and methods to their people that they won’t be able to ban—tools and methods that anyone living in the Kingdom will be able to use to express their opinions, fears, demands, and dreams. Unrestricted tools which one can use without going through gatekeepers appointed and deposed by the Saudi Ministry of Information who enforce censorship on each pronounced or written word.
The royal family forgot that global consciousness, despite the Kingdom’s oppressive control, can create citizens who are conscious enough to stand for their rights. Citizens who no longer hesitate to demand equal rights, the right to freedom of expression, and the preservation of universal human rights values. Citizens like Waleed Abulkhair.
The regime is currently living in a state of historical confusion and doesn’t know how to control the expansion of social media networks and their growing popularity among youth. The regime has lost control of these tools and of all the stories that now transcend borders and inspire those living in the Kingdom. Interaction through the new media has inspired Saudis to make change and to establish a new social contract between the ruler and the ruled.
The regime sees the acquisition of free words like the possession of drugs or the holding of a terrorist ideology. They are blocking websites and issuing laws to restrict the internet and to imprison human rights activists, ostensibly to protect the intellectual and cultural security of the citizen, while in fact just protecting the regime…