June 04, 2006
Saudi Cyber-Vigilantes effect first Saudi blog ban
In MENA, blogs are increasingly becoming part of the political sphere. Blogs serve as conduits for information and debate and link people from various regions who are interested in a certain topic. In recent times, bloggers have increasingly been vocal in politics as well and regional governments have responded - as exemplified in the cases of the two Egyptian bloggers Karim and Alaa. In Saudi Arabia, however, bloggers do not have to fear the government but rather a self-styled "official" blogger group that appears to aim for the "ethical cleansing" of the Saudi blogosphere.
Saudi blogs have developed in earnest since Summer 2004. Today, the aggregator "saudiblogs.org" alone counts over 80. As in every other place, they range from cute diaries to political analysis. The Saudi blogosphere is very lively and indispensable for any outsider who wants to learn something about the country that goes beyond the usual news-flashes featuring decadent princes, fanatical jihadists, and shrouded women.
In April of this year a new group appeared. It calls itself "OCSAB - The Official Community of Saudi Bloggers" and has embarked upon a path to establish a "good" Saudi blogger community. Its guidelines (as graciously translated by Farah) are:
- That the blog does not touch on Islam improperly in any way or shape, which thereby rules out blogs that call to secularism and liberalism.
- Seeing as how the community is for Saudi bloggers, naturally then, the blog must be run by a Saudi.
- Since we exert much effort into maintaining an elevated level of blogging, the language in use must be Arabic.
An exception: Blogs with a non-Arabic speaking audience are excluded, only on the condition that they call to Islam or reflect a pleasant image of Saudi Arabia.
- That the blog specifies a certain direction for it to follow, be it Islamic, scientific, technical, medical, social etc. We apologize for not accepting purely personal blogs (i.e diary-like blogs)
The initial reaction by Saudi bloggers was predictable - they resented the new group's attempts to regulate the Saudi blogosphere, as shown by the posts on 5 April of some of the most outspoken: Ahmed, Farah, and 'Aya'. Reuters picked up the story a month later - now OCSAB had proceeded to try to obtain government funding for its activities. This occasioned another round of responses from Saudi bloggers - notably 'Aya' and Ahmed. The Saudi blogosphere seemed to have developed into two groups - those who did not mind OCSAB's rules and where happy to be included and those who resented the policing and kept on blogging as it were. Some OCSAB members, most notably Muhammad al-Masa'id (OCSAB's founder who blogs as "Green Tea"), have continued to harass non-conformist bloggers, but as a whole things continued normally.
Now, a month later, the situation has escalated to a new level. For the first time a Saudi blog has been singled out to be blocked by the official Saudi internet authority, the Internet Service Unit (ISU) at King Abdulaziz City for Science & Technology (KACST). As Farah shows, the block request seems to have come from OCSAB. At this point, it is unclear why exactly SaudiEve has been targeted, as she is neither the most outspoken nor the most political of the Saudi bloggers, as she mostly blogs about personal issues and not Saudi Arabia, and has never written about the Saudi government. Some bloggers surmise that her inclusion of a Christian and a Jewish travel prayer (together with a Muslim one) in her last post before a long journey was used as the excuse to request her blog being banned in Saudi Arabia.
The ban has unleashed a storm of activism across the Saudi and MENA blogosphere, with bloggers calling to send requests to the ISU unblock SaudiEve in addition to others suggesting to request the ISU to block some of the OCSAB leaders' own blogs. The ban itself is easily circumvented as there are many websites and programs that enable to view sites blocked by one's ISP, and as particularly the internet users in the MENA region are experts in this.
The "blogger.com" domain itself has not been banned - previous attempts to do so have been unsuccessful. And even if one blogging service should be blocked, there are countless others to which the bloggers could switch, like typepad or livejournal.
What is particularly interesting in this case - as opposed to the problems that bloggers face in Egypt or Dubai, for example - is the fact that in Saudi Arabia it is not a government body that is persecuting all-too-liberal bloggers but instead a group of puritanist bloggers themselves that seems to have started a campaign of "cleansing" their national blogosphere and forcing it to abide by its own standards that suppress any form of critical thought about (their own takfiri [i.e. exclusivist]) version of Islam or the current state of social, political, economic, and cultural affairs in Saudi Arabia. What Saudi bloggers now fear is that OCSAB and its allies in the Saudi government will try to ban undesirable blogs altogether and ferret out the real-life people behind the blogs.
Blog posts chronicling the development:
- Ahmed - 5 April 2006
- Farah - 5 April 2006
- 'Aya' - 5 April 2006
- Reuters - 3 May 2006
- Ahmed - 7 May 2006
- 'Aya' - 7 May 2006
- Farah - 31 May 2006
- SaudiEve - 2 June 2006
Blogs calling for activism:
Posted by raf* at June 4, 2006 12:07 PM
Filed Under: Gulf
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IF OCSAB was simply a committe targeting bloggers who "want" to join, then I don't think there is a problem with that. BUT if OCSAB wants to force all bloggers to adhere to their rules, and ban or trace bloggers who don't want to, & since they might have allies in the government, then definetly there is a problem.
I have visited couple of blogs last night, and I concluded that: they didnot disclose explicitly what are they going to do with those bloggers who don't adhere to the OCSAB rules..
--*Raf Loved your article very professional and summarizes it all in an organizer manner.
Posted by: Mystique at June 6, 2006 02:55 AM
I believe a belated thank you for posting about my blog being blocked is due.
I really appreciate it.
..+ Great article.
Posted by: Saudi Eve at June 17, 2006 03:20 PM
Interesting reading. Is this a newspaper site? Very professional. One more thing: I know Arabic, and Farah's translation of the rules posted by OCSAB is a tad bit biased and, consequentially, incorrect. The first condition doesn't say "don't touch Islam"; it rather says "Samawi" religions, i.e. heavenly religions, which (as the word means) includes Judaism and Christianity. As for the second condition, it says the blog must be run by a Saudi *or someone living in Saudi Arabia*.
I can see why Farah is pissed, but when *I* am pissed I never adulterate translated text to fit my bias. It's dishonest, even to those who agree with me and back me up.
Posted by: Psychotic_Clown at June 19, 2006 03:06 PM