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A Saudi government body is seeking legal action against journalists and bloggers who “defame” the commission. The move has outraged the kingdom’s media industry.
May 25, 2009 2:36 by Omaima Al-Fardan
The recent move by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice to seek judicial action against those who defame them has evoked a fiery response from Saudi legal experts, who say journalists have the legal right to report news and that members of all government bodies are open to criticism as long as it is supported with evidence.
The legal experts also say that the only government body that can question journalists is the Journalist Violations Committee of the Ministry of Information.
It is unclear whether the commission’s decision to seek legal action against media outlets includes coverage in the international media. When asked if the rule applies to the international media too, the commission stopped short of complete acquiescence.
The commission said it would open new channels of communication with the international media to convey their side of stories. It was not clarified how and with whom the channels would respond.
Shariah defines defamation as tash’hir – harming the reputation of someone or an institution in public. However, lawyers, judges and religious scholars differ in its interpretation. It is here where the debate begins on what exactly constitutes tash’hir.
According to Ibrahim Al Zamzami, a Saudi legal expert based in Makkah who issued a case of tash’hir against a local Arabic daily, journalists themselves should not be made liable, but rather the establishments they work for. Al Zamzami said the concept of tash’hir has been misunderstood. “Each one expressing his opinion is now accused of tash’hir, which is applicable only when the individuals are harmed,” he said.
“Addressing the commission’s faults is just like criticizing any other government body. This is not tash’hir,” he said, adding that journalists have the right to follow up on news and that this right is protected by the government. Such news, added Al Zamzami, includes social issues.
He said the commission must be transparent. “Why doesn’t the commission acknowledge faults committed by its members?” he said, adding, “We should not defame the reputation of the commission in general as it performs a good role in the community.”