Although Saudi Arabia was one of the first countries to have been authorized to register domain names in Arabic, it is still one of the most repressive countries when it comes to the Internet.

For example, since 2009 Internet cafes in the country have been required to install hidden cameras, supply a list of customers and websites accesses, not permit the use of prepaid cards or of unauthorized Internet access via satellite, close at midnight and not admit minors. In the latest development of concern, Sheikh Mekhlef bin Dahham al-Shammari, a writer/blogger, human rights activist and social reformer, is in jail. Why? For “annoying others.” He has not yet been formally charged.

Blogger Rhymes With Prisoner

Al-Shammari has often written about poverty and unemployment in the kingdom, accusing the government of ignoring these problems because it is obsessed with public morality and keeping men and women apart. He has also highlighted the government’s failure to promote tourism, and its discrimination against the Shiite minority. Although a Sunni, he was critical of the influential Saudi preacher Mohammed al-Arifi for referring to one of Iran’s most respected Shiite clerics, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, as an “obscene atheist.”

In an article published in April of last year, “My Dear Christian”, al-Shammari contrasted the work of an American Christian who was killed while helping to protect Palestinian Muslim children with the conditions imposed by Saudi Muslim charities that require its recipients exhibit proper Islamic conduct.

Al-Shammari has been arrested several times in recent years, in part because of his defense of Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority. He told Human Rights Watch that prosecutors used his articles to accuse him of spreading discord among Muslims. His articles criticizing the conservative interpretations of Islam promoted by Saudi officials led to his arrest on May 15, after which he was released on bail. His latest arrest took place on June 15 in Jubail. He was transferred to Damman prison at the start of this month.

Al-Shammari is not the first blogger jailed for seemingly arbitrary reasons in Saudi Arabia. For example, Fouad al Farhan, a blogger known for advocating political reforms, was arrested in 2007 in Jeddah. His arrest was reported by other Arab bloggers, and the Saudi authorities also confirmed he was being held in solitary confinement for “interrogation.” No official charges were ever cited or laid. He was released from prison on April 26, 2008. Al Farhan, who is in this thirties, was one of the first Saudi bloggers to dispense with a pseudonym on his site. He was also the first cyber-dissident to be jailed in the country — but he’s far from the last.

According to information from the Arabic Network for Human Rights, Munir alJassas, a prominent Internet activist and defender of the rights of Shiites, has been in jail since November 7, 2009. This is apparently because of his comments and articles on websites and online forums such as Tahara and Shabaket AlRames, where he is one of the most prominent writers.

Free Speech in Saudi Arabia

In the kingdom, free speech is under constant threat. In March, the Saudi cleric Sheikh Abdul-Rahman al-Barrak, a professor of religion at the Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh, declared a fatwa against two journalists. Reuters reported that he “was responding to recent articles in al-Riyadh newspaper that questioned the Sunni Muslim view in Saudi Arabia that adherents of other faiths should be considered unbelievers.”

“Anyone who claims this has refuted Islam and should be tried in order to take it back. If not, he should be killed as an apostate from the religion of Islam,” read the fatwa.

In another example, the journalist Rozanna al-Yami was sentenced to 60 lashes by a judge because she worked for the Lebanese Broadcast Corporation (LBC), a satellite TV station that shocked conservative Saudis a year ago by broadcasting an interview with a Saudi man talking openly about his sex life.

There was one encouraging development. In June of last year, Saudi Arabia agreed to have its human rights records reviewed by the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, and it welcomed Navi Pillay, the UN high Commissioner for human rights last April. Sheikh Mekhlef bin Dahham al-Shammari was among the few activists who met her.

However, the fact that the authorities have jailed him for such a ridiculous and offensive reason (“annoying others”) shows that the kingdom is still not committed to changing its approach to free speech. If this charge is taken seriously by authorities, then how many more bloggers will end up behind bars for similar reasons?

Clothilde Le Coz has been working for Reporters Without Borders in Paris since 2007. She is now the Washington director for this organization, helping to promote press freedom and free speech around the world. In Paris, she was in charge of the Internet Freedom desk and worked especially on China, Iran, Egypt and Thailand. During the time she spent in Paris, she was also updating the “Handbook for Bloggers and Cyberdissidents,” published in 2005. Her role is now to get the message out for readers and politicians to be aware of the constant threat journalists are submitted to in many countries.