Saudi Arabia targets Twitter satire

Users face five-year jail term and huge fine under strict new social media laws targeting dissent

(Image credit: Amer Hilabi/AFP/Getty Images)

Anyone in Saudi Arabia caught using online satire to “disrupt public order” faces up to five years in prison and a massive fine, under new laws aimed at further cracking down on dissent in the Kingdom.

In an announcement published on Twitter, the public prosecutor’s office said: “Producing and distributing content that ridicules, mocks, provokes and disrupts public order, religious values and public morals through social media ... will be considered a cybercrime.”

Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia is undergoing a programme of sweeping reforms in a bid to modernise sections of its deeply conservative society.

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The Independent says its population is “one of the most engaged with social media in the Middle East, but online dissent has been discouraged with the threat of imprisonment”.

Dozens of Saudi citizens have been convicted on charges linked to dissent under a previous sweeping law, particularly linked to posts on Twitter.

Salman has “drawn harsh criticism from rights groups over the targeting of human rights activists and political dissidents across the spectrum since his appointment in June 2017” reports The Daily Telegraph, while “prosecutors have in the past used the Gulf kingdom's anti-cybercrime law to prosecute critics of the government” says the BBC.

In September 2017, authorities issued a public call for the Saudi public to report on the social media activities of their fellow citizens, under a broad definition of “terrorist” crimes.

Last month, prosecutors ordered five human rights protesters to be sentenced to death over their political activism. Israa al-Ghomgham, 29, is thought to be the first woman to be handed a death sentence in the kingdom.

On Tuesday, it was reported that prosecutors were seeking the death penalty for a prominent cleric who was arrested last September after posting a tweet endorsing warmer relations with Qatar.

UN experts have described Salman al-Oda as a “reformist” and an influential religious figure who has urged greater respect for human rights within Sharia.

However, the 61-year-old, who has more than 14 million Twitter followers, is accused of “seeking to spread sedition” and “incitement against the rulers”, according to London-based rights group ALQST.