Saudi Arabia seeks to expand freedom

Saudi Arabia's appointed Shura (consultative) Council is seeking to promote freedom of expression and wants newspapers to serve as a platform for debate between conservatives and liberals.

    Kingdom is trying to introduce social reforms

    Abd Al-Rahman al-Inad, a member of the Shura Council’s cultural and media affairs committee, said on Thursday dialogue between liberals and conservatives should be public.

    During a session on Monday, the 120-member council adopted a series of recommendations aimed at boosting the local media and improving the kingdom's image abroad.

    The advisory body recommended allocating the funds necessary for the ministry of culture and information to bolster its performance "at home and abroad," and asked the ministry to "enhance freedom of expression in Saudi media," reported the Saudi Press Agency (SPA).

    The council, whose recommendations are referred to King Fahd and must then be approved by the government, also called for opening the doors to private Saudi investments in the audiovisual media.

    Media freedom

    Al-Inad said the call for more freedom in the media was compatible with the concept of "dialogue" espoused by Crown Prince and de facto ruler Abd Allah bin Abd Al-Aziz.

    "The question is whether such freedom will be implemented in practice"

    Abd Al-Rahman al-Inad,
    member of the Shura Council’s cultural and media affairs committee

    The call led to Islamists, liberals and others coming together for two rounds of discussion in June and December 2003 as part of a cautious reform process in the conservative kingdom.

    "We want to eliminate some of the unwritten red lines in the press and expand the scope of freedom such that it would serve the concept of dialogue," said al-Inad, who is also a member of a recently launched National Human Rights Association.

    Saudi Arabia has about a dozen newspapers owned by private institutions, but closely monitored by the government through the information ministry.

    Red lines remain

    While the Saudi press has gone a long way in airing economic and social problems over the past two years, it largely continues to toe the official line on political and other matters considered "sensitive."

    The goal of the Shura recommendation is "to reduce the information ministry's intervention in the affairs of the local press ... and put an end to the practice of banning a columnist from writing for having expressed a particular view or firing an editor" because of his newspaper's reporting or editorial policy, said al-Inad.

    The Shura Council's ambitions to expand freedom of expression are currently limited to the written media, since radio and television are state-owned and considered official organs, said the Shura member.

    "I'm pretty sure that the cabinet will not object to the recommendation, because the basic statutes of government uphold freedom of expression. The question is whether such freedom will be implemented in practice," he said.



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