Tech Journalism Is Risky Business

Saudi Arabia punishes reporter for writing about electrical utility protestors

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Steven Cherry: Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum's "This Week in Technology."

For being the world's largest oil producer, Saudi Arabia has one of the worst track records for delivering reliable power. In fact, power is cut with disturbing regularity—particularly during the summer months when temperatures get above 50 ºC—that's more than 120 ºF, and air conditioners and refrigerators overpower the country's aging grid.

The cuts have closed factories, blacked out villages and schools, and shut down fueling stations, hospital machines, and ATMs. But it's difficult to know just how widespread the problem is, because journalists in Saudi Arabia aren't exactly rewarded for their coverage of the public's outrage.

There is one case of public outrage we do know about though. Back in 2008, hundreds of citizens gathered in front of an electricity station in Qubba, in northern Saudi Arabia, to protest frequent power cuts as reported by journalist Fahd al-Jukhaidib—writing for the national daily newspaper Al-Jazeera. He was arrested and this past October the general court in Qubba sentenced him to two months in prison and 50 lashes—25 of them to be in front of the electric company.

My guest today is Christoph Wilcke. He is a senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. He joins us by phone from Munich, Germany. Christoph, welcome to the podcast.

Christoph Wilcke: Hello and welcome

Steven Cherry: Christoph, tell us a little about the case itself.

Christoph Wilcke: The case as you mention is about a journalist for a well known, actually fairly conservative newspaper called Al-Jezeera, not to be confused with the satellite Al-Jezeera TV channel, who lives in a very small town in northern Saudi Arabia. He's a schoolteacher but also writes for this paper and he thought it was worthwhile to report that his fellow citizens in that small town were protesting at the very frequent power cuts. According to al-Jukhaidib, these took place over the course of 10 or 15 years and the power company did nothing about it. Now what's interesting about this case is, for one, that he wrote about it but even more interesting is that the national newspapers in Saudi Arabia actually wrote about his arrest and trial and sentencing. Normally such human rights violations are met by studious official silence. So the fact that national newspapers wrote about them and not just blogs or other Internet writings that are more difficult to censor, tells you something on the one hand about the outrageousness of this case, and on the other hand the fact that maybe ever so slightly the media space is opening up. In this case you have two issues. One is the protest. All protests in Saudi Arabia are as a matter of policy, but not law, prohibited. You're not allowed to demonstrate, which is a human rights violation, and also you're not allowed to write a lot of things that might upset the big princes like what happened in this case.

Steven Cherry: So what's the status of the case right now?

Christoph Wilcke: The status of the case is that he has appealed. He's taken a lawyer for the appeal. He did not have a lawyer for the first round of trials, which is often the case in Saudi Arabia, and he thought this would go away or something. Maybe he wasn't aware that he might need a lawyer. And now that it's serious, that he has been convicted in the first instance, he has taken a lawyer to help him with his appeal. It will go to an appeal court, which is actually a very new institution in Saudi Arabia. In the provincial capital Buraidah of the province [Al-]Qassim where he lives, and we'll see what the clerics who are judges there say to the case when it reaches them. We are hopeful that it will have gathered enough international attention so that they will let themselves be guided by international standards as well as local law.

Steven Cherry: So now I gather the reporter was charged with, I guess, inciting this protest when really he had just gone to report on it, and his report seems like it was really a pretty modest statement. I mean for example he wrote that, "hundreds of citizens gathered in front of the electricity station in Qubba demanding that the company supply electricity in the town. Repeated outages have caused damage to electrical appliances, and houses and material losses for commercial businesses and led to the declaration of an emergency situation for sick persons." I mean this is just straightforwardly reporting the facts.

Christoph Wilcke: The article goes on beyond what you just read and actually cites his sources. So in terms of journalism it's a fairly good article, especially compared by Saudi standards, which sometimes distort messages and fail to attribute sources, and he does not incite in any way a protest. Which would be his right to do under international law. But he also of course does not incite any acts of violence, which he, under international law, would not be allowed to do.

Steven Cherry: Technology, especially social networking, is seen as giving people more opportunities to communicate, so maybe it fuels or enables protests. But this case turns on traditional newspaper reporting. And I wonder if technology is responsible in a different way in this case, and that is for having turned citizens into consumers and giving them higher expectations for their day-to-day lives. If that's true what does it mean in a place like Saudi Arabia?

Christoph Wilcke: I think in the past five years in Saudi Arabia as well as other parts of the world you've seen a change in the way in which news is consumed. Normal Saudi citizens have become much more global citizens in a way, from fashion statements to awareness about global politics, and also awareness of their rights in holding government accountable. They're much more sophisticated than they were five years ago, much more aware, so whereas 10 years ago you might have a very small elite of people who would ask for things like a constitution, which Saudi Arabia doesn't have, now you have a group of people in a very small town who think it's all right to go protest for very essential service provision like electricity. That would have been unimaginable a few years ago.

Steven Cherry: And do you think that technology is opening things up there in that respect as well?

Christoph Wilcke: Technology and specifically the advance of the Internet and the mobility of the Internet in the last few years have raised the awareness of many people in Saudi Arabia. It hasn't really led to any change in policies that we can detect. So the government is certainly lagging behind and the gap between demands from the citizenry and responses by a government behemoth is growing wider. Now we'll see where that goes, whether government can catch up or whether government will continue to be sort of the laggard and the repressive organ here. I want to mention two attempts that Saudi Arabia has made along with other states in the region to catch up to the digital age. In 2007 Saudi Arabia passed a new law called the Cyber Crimes Law that it tried to sell, something that would protect the Internet consumer for example against defamation on the Internet, against identity theft and those kind of things. But when you look at it more closely and when you follow the actual trials that are happening under this law, it is a repressive law meant to stifle freedom of expression. The people tried. One person has criticized a Saudi official, a consul in Beijing who denied his brother medical care. And he blogged away and lambasted him and now he's being tried under this law. And the other guy who set up a secularist Web site—of course Saudi Arabia is very religious so you're not allowed to be secularist let alone an atheist. And he propagated how Qatar, a neighboring country, allowed a church to be built and Saudi Arabia hadn't, and he was also tried for setting up a Web site that is against Islam. So that's one law that Saudi Arabia has used to try to move into the digital age but only for repressive purposes. The other thing that they're doing right now is they're discussing a new law that would regulate news Web sites. Now newspapers are regulated. TVs are regulated by law. The government appoints the editors in chief. I'm sure you wouldn't want to have your technology podcast editor in chief being appointed by the American government, but that's what happens in Saudi Arabia. And that's something that they're discussing for the new law on news Web sites.

Steven Cherry: You mention mobility and I noticed that the UAE actually prohibited BlackBerrys. Saudi Arabia didn't quite do that, but they do filter BlackBerry messages?

Christoph Wilcke: Well there's a famous Hadith normative example from the time of the prophet Mohammed for Muslims in which he made a very vigorous defense of privacy. Privacy is of course in the news because of Wikileaks these days but the Caliph Omer said: If you broke into a house and then found out a secret that was a crime, we cannot use that because you committed a crime by breaking into the house and disturbing their privacy. That's the ideal that Saudi Arabia portrays. The practice is such that almost everybody I know in the human rights, political opposition community is convinced that their phones are tapped, their e-mails are read, their Twitter feeds are monitored. What happened with the BlackBerry was that Research In Motion were using servers to which the governments of the UAE and Saudi Arabia and I think India was the third state, simply didn't have access to. So you could conceivably, especially on the instant messenger on the BlackBerry, send messages user to user in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else in the world, and the Saudi government could not hack into it. It had strong encryption. Of course they thought this could be used for terrorism purposes, but a lot of human rights activists were actually quite happy to say, like, for the first time we have a secure method of communication. But it appears that Research In Motion has worked out a deal whereby it will grant the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and India access to some of that information and I think it has already done so to the United States.

Steven Cherry: So to sum up, it sounds to me like things are opening up a little bit in countries like Saudi Arabia, but technology moves so quickly that maybe the gap between what's possible and what is allowed is growing, no narrowing…

Christoph Wilcke: Well, I think one way you could put it is that things are opening up because the people are using technology, are communicating more with each other but also with the world and are becoming more aware of what's out there in the world including human rights, rights to an effective government. What has not changed really is the way the government deals with the demands of the people. I mean protests are illegal in Saudi Arabia, much critical writing will land you in jail as it did Fahd al-Jukhaidib, strikes are illegal. There's now the first metro being built in Mecca on the western part of Saudi Arabia, and they imported Chinese workers to build the metro. Of course the Chinese workers are fairly accustomed to labor action, and when they weren't being paid for six months they took to the streets and protested, only to be very swiftly rounded up by the Saudi police and told you can't do this in Saudi Arabia.

Steven Cherry: Wow. I noticed that pretty much every hit in Google is just the Human Rights Watch press release and the world would not know about this case without your organization. As a journalist I want to give a special thanks to you for that.

Christoph Wilcke: Well, Human Rights Watch found out about it from Saudi journalists, so our thanks go to them and let me try to do a Google search in Arabic. I haven't done it yet actually so I'll see what that brings.

Steven Cherry: Very good. Once again, thank you for your work on this.

Christoph Wilcke: Okay. Thanks on help spreading the news.

Steven Cherry: We've been speaking with Christoph Wilcke, senior middle east researcher at Human Rights Watch, about power cuts in Saudi Arabia and a strange and disturbing court case involving a journalist who wrote about them. For IEEE Spectrum's This Week in Technology, I'm Steven Cherry.


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