Since March 2001, freedom of expression in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) has been governed primarily by the Law on Publishing & Publications (Publishing Law).  The scope of the Publishing Law was extended to electronic media in March 2011 by virtue of the Implementing Regulations of the Electronic Publishing (IREP).  Royal Order No. O-71 (Religious Scholars' Law), and a subsequent royal order amending the Publishing Law (Amendment), further altered the scope and application of the Publishing Law.  This article examines the content and practical effects of the Publishing Law, IREP, Religious Scholars' Law and Amendment (together the Laws).

Which activities are within the scope of the Laws?

The majority of the provisions of the Publishing Law relate to "publications".  The term "publication" is deemed to include any means of expression of a viewpoint that is made for circulation.  This definition includes words, drawings, photographs and sounds, so encompasses newspapers, periodicals, radio transmissions and television broadcasts.

The Amendment does not extend the range of "publications" to which the Publishing Law applies, but focuses instead on increasing the scope of the persons protected by the Publishing Law, increasing the penalties, and prescribing an exclusive forum for enforcement of the Laws.

The provisions of the Publishing Law are not designed to deal with internet-based and other electronic media.  This gap is filled by the IREP, which regulates a broad range of electronic publications, from electronic journals and news websites through to chat rooms, personal blogs and even text messages.

The recently published and enabled Religious Scholars' Law is arguably the most all-encompassing of the Laws, since its provisions apply to "all media channels".

On whom can liability fall under:

(a)  the Publishing Law?

The author, publisher and printer of a publication that is considered to be an "internal/local" publication are all liable for any violation of the Publishing Law.  If it is not possible to identify whether any of those individuals have committed the violation in question, liability shall fall on the distributor or seller of the publication.

The Publishing Law sets out separate provisions in relation to the "local press".  The Editor-in-Chief of a newspaper is responsible for the newspaper's content.  In addition to the Editor-in-Chief's overall responsibility for the newspaper, the writer of an article within the newspaper is responsible for the content of that particular article.

(b)  the IREP?

Under the IREP, the Editor-in-Chief of an electronic journal is deemed responsible for the content published in that journal.  Likewise, the manager of an electronic news agency or electronic publishing house is deemed responsible for the content published by that agency or publishing house.  In addition, the individual writer of text appearing on an electronic source shall be responsible for the content of that text.

What sorts of conduct may be considered violations of one or more of the Laws?

The Publishing Law (as amended by the Amendment) prohibits publications from:

i. conflicting with principles of Sharia'a law or applicable regulations;
ii. leading to a breach of public security or public policy, or serving a foreign interest that conflicts with the KSA's national interest;
iii. prejudicing the reputation or dignity of, or defaming, slandering or otherwise personally offending, the General Mufti of the KSA, the members of the Senior Scholars Authority, statesmen, government employees, or any other individuals or companies;
iv. exciting fanatical instincts or causing discord among KSA citizens;
v. leading to the approval and incitement of criminal conduct;
vi. damaging the KSA's public interests; and
vii. disclosing the secrets of investigations or trials (unless the prior permission of the competent authority has been obtained).

The above list of prohibited activities also applies to all electronic publications within the scope of the IREP.

It would appear that any media channel which fails to avoid heresy, prejudice, exaggeration and extremism will violate the Religious Scholars' Law.  Since the Religious Scholars' Law does not itself provide for penalties, however, it remains to be seen how the Religious Scholars' Law will be enforced in practice.

What are the penalties for violating any of the Laws?

An increase in the penalties under the Publishing Law is one of the changes brought about by the Amendment.

For example, the Publishing Law gave the KSA's Ministry of Information the right, "in emergencies", to withdraw any publication which contained anything conflicting with Sharia'a principles.  Following the Amendment, however, the Ministry of Information has the right, "whenever necessary", to withdraw any publication which is deemed to be carrying out any prohibited activity (of which conflicting with Sharia'a principles is only one example).

The Publishing Law provided that any violator of the Publishing Law would either be fined up to SAR 50,000 (currently equivalent to approximately US$13,300), or the enterprise responsible for the violation would be closed for a period of up to two months or permanently shut down.  The Amendment has increased the fine to SAR 500,000 (currently equivalent to approximately US$133,000) and has provided for the fine to be doubled for repeat violations.  In addition, the newspaper, electronic newspaper or website through which a violation occurs can, under the Amendment, be closed temporarily or permanently, and the violator may be prohibited from writing in any newspapers or other printed media, or participating in satellite channels.

By virtue of the IREP, the provisions of the Publishing Law setting out penalties for violations shall also apply in respect of electronic publications.

In addition to the penalties set out in the Laws, separate penalties may always be imposed arising from other law, particularly if content is deemed to violate religious law or to offend the sacred customs and traditions of the KSA.  Such violations have resulted in the imposition of lashes and other penalties.

Whilst the financial penalties imposed by the Publishing Law have been increased in the Amendment, the Publishing Law and the Amendment provide for violations to be reviewed by a special committee established to handle media disputes.  This committee will exercise exclusive jurisdiction to handle all claims involving the media and any complaints against the decisions of the committee will be considered by an appeal committee.  In effect, this means that the regular and religious courts will no longer exercise any jurisdiction over broadcasts of content deemed offensive by any other authority or party in the KSA.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.