Saudi web surfers can once again access Radio Netherlands Worldwide websites. Media expert Jan Keulen thinks it remarkable that the authorities in Saudi Arabia lifted the block so soon. In his view, the Saudi kingdom is one of the world's greatest enemies of internet freedom.
The Saudi boycott came as no surprise to Mr Keulen, the Dutch director of the Doha Centre for Media Freedom. “It was only a matter of time,” he reflects.
“Radio Netherlands Worldwide is an important source of information in the Arab World, and certainly in Saudi Arabia. If you publish something that doesn’t go down well – or to use the official jargon, that violates the moral values of the kingdom – then you’ll be blocked.”
The government in Riyadh takes Radio Netherlands Worldwide seriously, is Mr Keulen's conclusion. “Let’s just say it wouldn’t be a compliment to RNW if the censor ignored you.”
Access to the RNW website was restored on Monday. This time, Mr Keulen was surprised. “It’s most remarkable. Maybe the government in Riyadh has had second thoughts about being able to justify the boycott. Or perhaps there was diplomatic pressure behind the scenes. I can only speculate, but nevertheless, it’s a highly unusual development.”
RNW is certainly not the only broadcaster to go too far in the eyes of Riyadh. Al-Jazeera’s website is among many others to fall foul of Saudi sensibilities. NGOs put the total number of websites blocked by the Saudi government at around 400,000.
The vast majority of these sites contain pornographic material, but there are also tens of thousands of web pages which are inaccessible because they carry politically sensitive content. The range of offending topics is vast: it could be anything from women’s rights, the rights of foreign workers, the military situation or the position of the royal House of Saud.
The initiative to block a website usually comes from the authorities but, as Mr Keulen notes, private individuals can also have their say.
“Any citizen can submit a request to have a site blocked if he or she finds it objectionable. It’s a bizarre system which, if viewed cynically, could be regarded as giving a vague hint of democracy to what is a highly unsavoury practice.”
He believes the authorities themselves were behind the blocking of Radio Netherlands Worldwide. The direct trigger for the censorship would appear to have been video footage showing the mistreatment of a migrant worker. Mr Keulen reckons it’s a subject that is controversial enough to prompt government intervention from Riyadh.
“The situation of foreign workers and abuse of domestic staff is a very sensitive issue, one that is also kept out of the regular media channels in Saudi Arabia. It’s a topic that is not open to discussion, a Saudi taboo. It therefore wouldn’t surprise me if it’s the government itself, or circles close to the government, who do not want to see such articles published.”