Content Regulation / Censorship
Loughran v. Century Newspapers Ltd
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Raif Badawi, the founder and moderator of a website called Saudi Liberals, was charged with criminal contempt of religion and sentenced to ten years imprisonment, 1,000 lashes, and a one million Saudi Riyal fine. The court rejected all defenses Badawi raised. The charges were modified numerous times throughout the proceedings.
Raef Badawi has been repeatedly and severely punished by the Saudi authorities for the sole crime of being the founder and moderator of Saudi Liberals, an internet website. Badawi is a Saudi blogger and activist. His first encounter with the Saudi authorities was at the age of 25, when his father filed a complaint against him before the religious police in Mecca.
Authorities allege that his failure to delete certain posts off his website amounts to “criminal contempt of religion.” The posts in question generally represent agnostic and liberal interpretations of Islam.
His latest sentence of a one million Saudi riyal fine, 10 years of imprisonment, and 1,000 lashes was handed down on May 7, 2014. To date, there is debate and obfuscation (on the part of Saudi authorities) regarding the status of his case and the enforcement of his sentence. It is beyond dispute, however, that Badawi has already received at least 50 lashes in Jeddah, and currently awaits another installment of the uniquely medieval form of punishment. According to the latest Jeddah Criminal Court, the 1,000-lashes sentence is to be carried out over the course of 50 weeks, starting on January 9, 2015. However, due to mounting international pressure, the second installment has been delayed several times.
Throughout Badawi’s ordeal, the charges have been amended several times. But his crime of insulting Islam has remained fixed in the eyes of the authorities. Similarly, the sentences against him have varied significantly since the original trial, but all have included a number of years in prison and hundreds of public lashes.
The original charges against Badawi, as they appear in charging documents filed back in 2009 by the Mecca Prosecutor’s Office, are as follows:
1. Contempt of Religion and Insulting Islam. Both are supported by the posts published on Saudi Liberals, the website which Badawi hosted. The statements generally questioned the validity of prayer; wondered why Valentine’s day is not celebrated in Saudi Arabia; and mocked a few religious and political figures.
2. Apostasy. The supporting evidence for this charge is the same evidence for the Contempt of Religion and Insulting Islam charge previously mentioned.
3. Disobedience of One’s Parents. The only evidence for this charge is Badawi’s father’s word against his own. His father had filed a complaint accusing his son of disobeying him by not shutting down the website.
4. Violation of Saudi Anti-Cyber-Crime Law, especially Articles 6 and 9. The First Paragraph of Article 6 of the law criminalizes “the production, storage or dissemination of any electronic materials that may undermine public order or mock public morality or national figures.” The punishment is up to 5 years in prison and fines up to 3 million Saudi riyals. Additionally, Article 9 is a catch-all provision that deals with inchoate crimes. Article 9 criminalizes “any act to induce, conspire or otherwise facilitate the commission of any of the crimes listed in the law.” It is clear that Article 9 was used here to increase Badawi’s potential sentence.
The court eventually dismissed the charges of Apostasy and Disobedience of Parents. Meanwhile, it convicted Badawi of all the other charges and sentenced him in excess of the permitted sentences for those listed charges.
Badawi’s defense arguments centered around the following themes:
1. He should not be held responsible for views posted by others on his forum. His failure to delete such posts does not amount to “prohibited speech.” The Court disagreed.
2. The persons bringing charges have no standing since the amended Saudi Media law gives exclusive power to the Minister of Media to bring forward complaints on internet use. The Minister of Media is not involved in the case, and therefore, as the argument goes, the case should be dismissed for lack of standing to bring suit.
3. Neither Badawi, nor any of the other website’s administrators have ever authored any of the posts in questions. They have not authored any posts that mock Islam directly or indirectly. The posts in questions are not controlled or induced by the website or its founder.
The court disregarded Badawi’s entire defense as it handed down its harsh sentence.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The case contracts freedom of expression for the following reasons:
1. This case is unique among Saudi freedom of expression cases because it does not merely criminalize online expression. It is the only publicized case where the crime does not exceed the mere hosting of a website.
2. The penalty handed down is the harshest on record for similar acts.
3. The criminalized act is not active speech; Badawi is convicted mainly for failure to delete others’ statements off his website. Therefore, this case expands culpability for speech by others where the offense is one of mere omission to act, and not an offence of commission. Badawi himself did not make any of the statements.
4. The case shows signs of lack of judicial independence, which are common in freedom of speech cases in the Middle East. For political reasons, the judges simply had to agree with one another, the prosecutors, and the religious police.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Articles 6 and 9 were applied in this case.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
In January 2015, King Abdullah referred this case to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, on June 7, 2015, confirmed the lower court’s sentence of 10 years in prison, 1,000 lashes, and a 10-year travel ban after Badawi’s release.
Let us know if you notice errors or if the case analysis needs revision.