Freedom of opinion: Say what you like, but don’t harm others
If we are to believe what is often written in some sections of the international media, there is no freedom of opinion or expression in Saudi Arabia. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. Saudi law grants such freedoms to all.
Nevertheless, while these freedoms are guaranteed, the Kingdom has also taken measures to ensure that everyone enjoys the protection and support of the law in the event of any abuse or harm resulting from the exercise of these freedoms.
Media publishers are required by the Saudi Press and Publication Law to avoid aggression, and to be polite, as required by the teachings of Islam. The law also strictly prohibits publication of anything that harms the dignity and rights of any human being, regardless of their sex or nationality. In principle, no local newspapers are subject to censorship, other than in exceptional circumstances approved by the prime minister. Electronic publishing is not subject to censorship, without prejudice to the responsibility of the publisher for what they make public.
Thus, freedom of expression is guaranteed by any means of publication, but within the scope of Sharia. Saudi law respects the principle that the limit of your freedom is the freedom of others, so the law protects people from any abuse that could harm their reputation, blackmail them or even damage their business or brand name, to ensure they live in a healthy environment that encourages fair competition.
It may appear to be a paradox that the law guarantees freedom of expression, but also restricts it. The answer is that the aim is to protect, first, the community, and then the state, from any influence that may threaten its security, serve foreign interests, or provoke strife and spread discord among the public.
With these caveats, therefore, the Kingdom not only accepts a variety of opinions, but actively encourages their expression, whether through diverse social media channels, or through responsible authorities such as the King Abdul Aziz Center for National Dialogue.
The center was established in 2003 to promote the free and open exchange of views among Saudi citizens, different sectors of society, and the country’s institutions, and to study and discuss issues of national importance.
Those sections of the international media that use the issue of freedom of opinion and expression to attack Saudi Arabia fail to understand that the current renaissance in the Kingdom is not limited to the economy; it extends to the fight against corruption, and opening official channels of communication for the government to receive complaints and concerns of citizens through a trusted and professional mechanism.
Dimah Talal Alsharif is a Saudi legal consultant, head of the health law department at the law firm of Majed Garoub and a member of the International Association of Lawyers.