By: Alan Finlay
“Unfortunately I hold a pessimistic view with regards to content regulation in Saudi Arabia. That said, I think a good starting point is demanding more transparency with regards to blocked content.,” says Rafid Fatani in an interview related to a forthcoming report he wrote for the Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch 2011 Update I).
APCNews: In your report, you point out that the Saudi authorities have a difficult task of balancing human rights concerns when it comes to regulating the internet, and the pressures felt from the conservative majority. To what extent to do you think human rights issues actually play a strong part in this balancing act?
Rafid Fatani: It certainly plays a role, but I don't think it’s a huge role - it is becoming increasingly more important, but for the time being, the religious conservatives play a far more influential role.
APCNews: Although there have been moves to improve the socio-economic empowerment of women in the kingdom, this still seems to be stunted by the fundamentalist influence in policy-making. How free are women to use the internet and express themselves openly in Saudi Arabia? Some appear to get it right?
RF: I don't have statistics, but I suspect there are more female internet users in Saudi Arabia. Let’s not forget there are more female university graduates than men, but they play a minute role in the job market - so the internet plays a huge role in their lives. This of course has led to many women discovering some of their stolen rights. But for the majority, it’s not a case of being forced: they feel it’s their duty to be like this, and unfortunately see their rights as a western conspiracy to liberalise society.
APCNews: You point out that the Saudi government relies on a bottom-up, citizen-led form of censorship - and that this is one way to claim that it is acting democratically…
RF: Yes. The government relies on its citizens to report websites that are offensive. Of course their argument is flawed in many ways but they seem to feel that they are acting on behalf of the people. If you feel strongly when content is blocked, you can always request that it gets unblocked, which sometimes works.
APCNews: Formal civil society activities in the kingdom are tightly controlled, and it’s illegal to form an organisation without government permission. How does this stunt human rights activities in the kingdom?
RF: It means that most activities go underground - which is not great as it becomes very difficult to create human rights awareness campaigns.
APCNews: What do you think the main advocacy tasks lying ahead for human rights groups in the kingdom are when it comes to online freedoms and rights?
RF: Unfortunately I hold a pessimistic view with regards to content regulation in Saudi Arabia. I strongly believe it is more of a cultural barrier and less a political one – of course the authorities use this to their advantage. That said, I think a good starting point is demanding more transparency with regards to blocked content.
Note: The full GISWatch 2011 Update I report will be released mid-October.