Sidelined Speech in Saudi Arabia

Prominent Saudi editor resigns, supposedly

CAIRO—Jamal Khashoggi, editor-in-chief of the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan and longtime irritant of crotchety Saudi clerics, resigned his post May 16, ostensibly “to focus on his personal projects.” Some observers suspect, though, that Khashoggi’s withdrawal was forced.

Khashoggi tendered his parting papers after Al-Watan came under fire for an article questioning the often unbendingly conservative nature of Saudi Islam. Khashoggi will remain on the paper’s editorial board, according to the BBC—perhaps a small plum for vacating his post quietly.

Al-Watan is Saudi Arabia’s leading daily newspaper and one of the more progressive outlets in the country. Like many dailies in the kingdom, though, Al-Watan is owned by a Saudi royal, Prince Khalid al-Faisal, and the paper’s offices were erected on land donated by another prince. Like all other Saudi news outlets, Al-Watan is regularly subjected to merciless government oversight.

Khashoggi was removed from the same newspaper in 2003 for running a cartoon picturing a suicide bomber whose waist-lining sticks of dynamite were each labeled with the word “FATWA”—religious orders Saudi clerics demand of their followers, and which are occasionally violent.

He was reappointed as editor in 2007, only to be called onto the clerical carpet last week for questioning Salafism, unflinching literalism which enforces a seventh-century-style application of Islamic texts, according to veteran New York Times Mideast correspondent Neil MacFarquhar. The catalytic article in Khashoggi’s case defended the practice of visiting shrines and graves of revered Muslims, according to Agence France Presse, which Salafis vehemently oppose as a form of idol worship.

Speculations that Khashoggi was again fired abound in Arab newspapers, not at all an unreasonable assumption—not only because Khashoggi’s been pinkslipped before, but also because Saudi Arabia hasn’t exactly cultivated a reputation as a country that lets newsmakers frolic in free will.

Organizations like Freedom House, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Reporters Without Borders usually save some of their gloomiest language for describing Saudi Arabia’s journalistic environment. Reporters Without Borders brands Saudi Arabia one of the world’s “enemies of the Internet,” noting that the regime installs hidden cameras in Internet cafes, hounds dissident bloggers, and has blocked around 400,000 Web sites not to its liking. (Interesting aside: Saudi Arabia has used software called SmartFilter to keep information from its subjects, a product produced under American company McAfee, and formerly under Secure Computing).

While Saudi Arabia is a hot nightmare for candid communicators, the climate suffocating the kingdom’s speech is not all the doing of the regime or privileged Saudi religious leaders. BBC’s Arabic podcast recently profiled a group of lay volunteers calling itself “Saudi Flaggers,” conservative Saudis that scour YouTube for “offensive” content they subsequently petition YouTube administrators to remove. Saudi Flaggers’ Web site says in Arabic, “YouTube is a success story; don’t corrupt it, Arabs.” Outspoken Saudi journalists don’t just have the government to worry about; conservative citizens call for their careers, too.

Saudi Arabia’s religious police also features patrolling volunteers who harass and punish civilians for such hell-summoning acts as reading a newspaper during prayer time, or kissing one’s husband in public. The religious police force, whose nickname in Arabic is literally “volunteer” but whose official title is The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, is likely thrilled that Khashoggi surrendered his post.

Unlike Saudi Flaggers or those who donate their free hours to force religion on their neighbors, it’s unlikely that Jamal Khashoggi volunteered to relinquish his editorship to the delight of petulant Saudi clerics. But in the end it doesn’t matter whether Khashoggi was forced out, for the result is the same: The voice of another outspoken Saudi thinker has been de-amplified.

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Justin D. Martin is a journalism professor at Northwestern University in Qatar. Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_D_Martin