Internet users in Saudi Arabia have been unable to access Radio Netherlands Worldwide websites for the past couple of weeks. People attempting to visit the site are presented with a message stating that the website has been blocked. A possible cause is a video published on the RNW Arabic site which shows a migrant being beaten up in Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi authorities' message says: Sorry, the requested page is unavailable. If you believe the requested page should not be blocked please click here. The link in the message points to the website of the Communication and Information Technology Commission (CITC), where unblocking requests can be made. It is unlikely that many web users click on the link. It could lead to an unwanted 'courtesy call' from the authorities.
The video which is assumed to be the cause of the Saudis' displeasure is part of an article published on the RNW Arabic website on 15 July, describing how migrants are abused in Saudi Arabia. In the video a man of Arab appearance is intimidating a man believed to be an Asian, clubbing him with a stick. The person who posted the original video on YouTube commented that the images were shot in Saudi Arabia, although that is impossible to verify. YouTube has removed the video, but a copy is still available on the RNW website. The article generated a massive response on the RNW site and on Facebook.
Earlier this year Radio Netherlands Worldwide exposed the dismal working conditions of domestic staff at the Saudi Embassy in The Hague. Saudi Arabia's former ambassador to the Netherlands, Waleed Elkereidhi, was accused of exploiting his Filipino employees. He was reported to the police on accusation of people trafficking.
Web statistics show that the number of unique visitors to RNW's Arabic website began to decrease after the publication, followed by a sharp decline later. This points to the Saudis first blocking a few individual pages and then blocking all RNW websites.
Commenting on this case of unabashed internet censorship, RNW's Deputy Editor-in-Chief Ardi Bouwers says:
"The Arabic desk often reports on human rights abuses and free speech restrictions. The shocking video and the articles about exploitation led to heated discussions on the website involving opponents and proponents of Saudi Arabia's way of dealing with Asian employees. Apparently, the Saudis feel threatened by our exposure of the beastly way in which domestic staff are treated, and as a result they blocked our sites."
The Saudi blocking of RNW websites has far-reaching consequences for the free flow of information to Saudi Arabia. It's rare for such a government measure to be rescinded.
The Arab world is closely monitoring Radio Netherlands Worldwide. A recent interview with Syrian human rights activist Haitham Maleh, who has been awarded a major Dutch human rights medal
(Geuzenpenning), led to many reactions from the Arab world, including many from Syria's secret service. Their reactions were conspicuous because of the remarkable level of praise for President Assad's regime, expressed in identical words and phrases across the messages.
"However balanced our reporting may be, apparently it occasionally touches a raw nerve with the Saudi authorities," commented Ardi Bouwers.