This is part of a series looking at press freedom around the world, leading up to World Press Freedom Day on May 3. Find out more about the series below the story.
By Omar J.
Editor’s note: AJ+ met Omar J. in person, who asked that his full name be redacted for security concerns. This piece was originally written in Arabic and translated into English. Omar’s blog, Saudi Queer Blog, was blocked by the Saudi cybersecurity filter. He took it down and now uses a private Twitter account.
It might not surprise you to hear that Saudi Arabia isn’t the global lead when it comes to press freedom. The country is among the top 20 worst offenders of press freedom. But most are unfamiliar with just how advanced the Saudi cybersecurity machine is — unless you’ve come under its scrutiny.
Saudi monitors the country’s massive flow of data through an advanced proxy farm that, in accordance with the country’s cyber law, filters (and subsequently) blocks “immoral” and radical content.
The term ‘immoral’ is vague when it comes to Saudi cyber law, as it includes anything from pornographic content to websites that are supportive of LGBTQ rights or other marginalized members of society.
In addition, the country’s cyber laws were modified in 2014 to include the monitoring of social media, the country’s ultimate public-discourse forum. This announcement increased fears around self-expression via social media, and increased suspicions of rumored fake accounts that are set up by the government to trick and capture “immoral” users.
These facts have made it more difficult for someone like me to blog and tweet about the stories and challenges of marginalized members of society, such as the Saudi LGBTQ community.
When I first began blogging in 2005, it was a safe outlet where I could share stories and connect with like-minded individuals from around the country and the world.
I then moved to Twitter, and by setting up multiple pro-LGBTQ accounts I managed to connect with many members of my community in the region. However, in recent years I have had my blog, Saudi Queer Blog, blocked by the Saudi cybersecurity filter and received multiple threats online.
Though “trolls” and offensive tweeters are part of social media everywhere, things escalated with me in Ramadan of 2014 when I commented on a homophobic episode on the popular Saudi show, “Khawater,” or “Thoughts.”
In that episode, host Ahmed al Shugairi said homosexuality is the basis of social decay. He connected many ancient natural disasters to homosexuality and blamed high suicide rates among the LGBTQ community on their lifestyles. He even traveled to San Francisco to meet some gay men and women and then mocked them on his show.
The episode was controversial and popular. Many of my LGBTQ friends and followers saw it and were hurt by his depiction. They were even more hurt by how their families reacted to it.
I was furious and took my anger to my blog and Twitter, where I questioned the show’s host, his actions and this rigid view of Islam. These tweets ignited a heated discussion, and many men and women came to me threatening to hack my accounts and hunt me down. These acts have made me take down my blog and revert from using my Twitter accounts as actively as I once did.
I was genuinely worried that this could lead me to trouble with the law.
I now rely on private, silent accounts, which I only use to listen to the conversation and then connect directly with the few users I trust. It is not just me; many of my friends have resorted to shutting down their accounts. Some even moved out of the country. I don’t know what the future for Saudi press freedom is online, but from the rumors we hear about upcoming cybersecurity centers and data-monitoring projects, it doesn’t seem good.
Omar J. is a Saudi-based blogger and human-rights activist. He focuses on issues related to the LGBTQ community.
This post is part of a week-long AJ+ series looking at firsthand accounts of press freedom worldwide — and we want to hear from you.
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