Inside the Middle East
November 18, 2010
Posted: 908 GMT

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Filed under: General •Hajj •Saudi Arabia •Video

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August 31, 2010
Posted: 1252 GMT

There are unconfirmed reports that the Saudi Arabian Interior Ministry has arrested the sponsor of a Sri Lankan maid who has been in the news lately after doctors in her home country found 24 nails and needles inserted into her skin allegedly by the Saudi couple she worked for.

The 49-year-old woman who moved to Riyadh in March said the torture was her employers' way of punishing her when she didn't do the work they demanded by inserting pieces of metal into her arms, legs, hands and forehead.

She returned to her country for treatment and the story has gained momentum, incurring indignation in Sri Lanka, including protests outside the Saudi embassy in Colombo, and widespread demands for the Saudi government to take action. Read the latest on this story in the Saudi English-language daily Arab News.

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Filed under: Human Rights •Saudi Arabia

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August 21, 2010
Posted: 2053 GMT

A story that has been creating a stir in the region lately involes the case of a man in Saudi Arabia accused of paralyzing another man after attacking him with a knife.

According to local Saudi newspaper Okaz, the victim in the attack asked the judge hearing the case to submit his attacker to the same fate based on the precepts of Sharia law.  The judge,  says the paper, responded by sending letters to several hospitals in Saudi Arabia asking if they could sever a man's spinal cord.

CNN's Mohammed Jamjoom and Amir Ahmed have the rest of the compelling story here.

Filed under: General •Human Rights •Saudi Arabia

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April 2, 2010
Posted: 1105 GMT
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February 12, 2010
Posted: 549 GMT

By Joe Sterling, CNN

(CNN) – Despite the rise of the Web and its freewheeling second-by-second ferment, government efforts at control and censorship remain rife across the Middle East and North Africa, a new report said Thursday.

"In the Middle East and North Africa, the Internet has offered many people access to information and the outside world that would have been unimaginable a few years ago," according to the International Press Institute's latest report: the IPI Press Review 2009 Focus on the Middle East and North Africa.

Protests in Iran led to censorship and arrests of journalists, the report says.
Protests in Iran led to censorship and arrests of journalists, the report says.

"However, government control of the media remains tight in almost all [Middle East and North Africa] countries, and censorship and self-censorship are prevalent throughout the region."

The Internet has emerged as a challenge to officialdom and its pronouncements and reaction from activists. Journalists say government efforts to stem the flow of information are futile.

Communication on the popular social media sites, where people are attempting to elude the strictures of their governments, is playing a cat-and-mouse game with widespread independent reporting in places like Iran and Egypt.

But, said Anthony Mills, managing editor of the World Press Freedom Review based in Vienna, Austria, "Overall, things are getting worse."

In Iran, authorities cracked down on journalists after protests surfaced when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner in the June 12 presidential election, a victory that many in Iran say was fixed.

"Dozens of journalists have been detained without trial, and several sentenced to long prison sentences," the report said. "As demonstrators took to the streets, a news blackout was imposed on the foreign media. And yet, through social media networks like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, news of a violent government crackdown seeped out."

With the rise of the Internet, censorship efforts have emerged in Iran and other places across the region.

Iran "also cracked down on online media following the disputed June elections, and arrested online activists in an effort to stop the spread of dissenting information and opinions," according to the report.

Egypt, for example, uses a law designed to combat terror for arresting and detaining bloggers.

But Abdul Rahman al-Rashed, general manager of the TV network Al-Arabiya, said the resistance to the flood of Internet information from government and other sectors of society is like trying to stop the Nile River from flowing. They can't halt it.

"A lot of information is getting through to the average person, in Cairo, in Jeddah and Dubai. Censorship will not stop the free flow of information, in my opinion," he said.

Al-Rashed said the business needs of the telecommunications companies, the integral role the Internet plays in business, and the demand from citizens can't be thwarted. He said there might be remote regions where censorship can work because there isn't access to the Internet in such places.

Octavia Nasr, CNN senior editor for the Middle East who monitors social media sites, said young people are boldly circumventing the official media censorship across the Middle East with Twitter, Facebook and alternatives.

"People are taking matters into their own hands," Nasr said. "Traditional media is not necessarily a driving force."

Azza Matar, translator at the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information in Cairo, Egypt, said governments want the Arab world to use the Internet for fun and not interfere with government and serious issues, but people are circumventing the officials with new media.

"We're trying to express ourselves and expose the lies," she said.

People from different countries prefer different kinds of new media, she said. As for Iranians, who are gearing up for a day of protests Thursday against the regime on the Islamic Revolution's anniversary, she said Iranians prefer Twitter because it can't be blocked and "is faster than blogs in conveying messages for masses."

Neziha Rejiba, vice president of the Tunis-based Observatory for the Freedom of Press, Publishing and Creation and editor at Kalima Radio, said that theoretically, the whole world is getting its information online, but in the Middle East, censorship remains a reality, with cyberpolice blocking sites or even, as in the case of Syria, the Internet itself.

There is a dynamic in the Middle East between censorship and self-censorship.

"When journalists sit down to write a piece, they have to keep in mind the reaction to what they're writing. They're either scared of sanctions or revenge."

Bahrain's Foreign Minister Khalid Al Khalifa said the Internet "has revolutionized the world" and "has helped foster creativity, innovation and freedom."

There have been complaints there about the recent blocking of Web sites in Bahrain.

While Al Khalifa said regulating different kinds of censorship internationally is impractical, he said in the Middle East, censorship takes forms he has mixed feelings about.

"Censorship can be taken too far to silence dissent and opposing views, but it can also be used as a tool to prevent potentially destructive and damaging ideas and behavior. There is increasing concern about harmful content on the Internet from violence, inciting racial hatred and terrorist activity, to sexual content and pornography, which justifies censorship on moral grounds," Al Khalifa said.

As for other aspects of the Middle East and its media, the report reveals several relative silver linings when it comes to press freedom: the environment in Lebanon, Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

Lebanon has a "far and more diverse and vibrant media than any other Arab country," but the institute found that "most of Lebanon's media outlets are unduly influenced in their journalism content by powerful political figures to whom they are financially and politically beholden."

Mills said the media in Lebanon can be characterized as "partly free" because there's a lot they don't talk about, such as criticism of military intelligence and the head of state, for example.

According to the report, "Israel has one of the most open media environments in the Middle East" for Israeli journalists with a wide range of opinions and commentary.

At the same time, Israeli security policy prevents Israeli journalists from traveling into the Palestinian territories without special permission, and Palestinian journalists are prevented from entering Israel.

The report said both Israeli soldiers and Palestinian security forces interfere with the work of Palestinian journalists, and that journalists in Gaza have to resort to self-censorship.

Freedom of speech and press in the United Arab Emirates gets "some of the highest marks in the Arab world," but it "still has a long way to go."

The report cited a "number of taboo topics that journalists in the United Arab Emirates are not supposed to touch and indeed, most of the media do not," such as criticism of the ruling family. Across the Middle East, criticism of royal families and words perceived as insults to Islam have been criminalized.

In Iraq, violence there has dropped and so has the number of journalists' deaths, but "the U.S. military continues to imprison journalists without charge" and local security forces have been responsible for beating journalists. There is concern about the rise of proposed legislation stifling media freedom.

In Syria, which has "one of the world's worst records on media freedom," the media outlets are owned or controlled by the government. Political unrest elsewhere, the report said, is accompanied by media crackdowns, such as in Yemen, where there has been an insurgency in the north and civil unrest in the south. Elections in Algeria and Tunisia have also led to press freedom violations.

Governments have controlled "moral content" as well, the report said.

"In Saudi Arabia, several people involved in the production of a television show about sexual attitudes were sentenced to flogging and jail terms. In Sudan, journalist Lubna Hussein was sentenced to a flogging for wearing trousers. Following international uproar, the punishment was reduced to a fine, which was then paid by a pro-government journalists' association."

Filed under: Bahrain •Egypt •Iran •Iraq •Israel •Lebanon •Media •Palestinians •Saudi Arabia •Tunisia •UAE

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November 29, 2009
Posted: 733 GMT

Amir Ahmed, CNN

Mecca, Saudi Arabia (CNN) - Chanting "Allahu Akbar" - God is Greater than any - more than 2 million pilgrims crossed new pedestrian bridges Saturday to perform one of the last rituals of the Hajj season.

Jamarat is a re-enactment of an event when Prophet Abraham stoned the devil and rejected his temptations, according to Muslim traditions.

The ritual stoning of three pillars, which occurs in the tent city of Mina - about two miles from Mecca, was the scene of stampedes and many deaths in the 1980s and 1990s as pilgrims passed a crowded bottleneck area leading to the small pillars on the ground.

But this year the Saudi government completed a new project that avoids past congestion at the site. The government has erected three massive pillars and completed a $1.2 billion, five-story bridge nearby where pilgrims can toss stones. Authorities and pilgrims say it's a roomier atmosphere and more efficient way to accommodate the faithful.

"Everything went fine so far," Col. Khakled Qarar Mohammadi, head of the emergency forces at Jamarat, told CNN.

"It is an immense responsibility that we had to deal with. About 3 million pilgrims move in a small geographic area at the same time wanting to do the same ritual. So we have been preparing for this for years now."

Irtiza Hasan, a pilgrim from the United States, said all went well at the ceremony.

"The only incident I saw was that there were some handicapped women who were turned away in fears that they get hurt."

But Mohammadi said, "There are 10 vans on the second floor especially designated to serve the elderly and handicapped. Each van can take up to 14 pilgrims."

As a measure to alleviate harm, according to Muslim traditions, the elderly and the handicapped can appoint someone else to stone for them.

The five-story Jamarat bridge is air-conditioned at 19 degrees Centigrade, or 66 Fahrenheit, throughout the day and backed by water sprinklers that can reduce the temperature to about 29 degrees C, or 84 F. The bridge is designed to allow the addition of seven more levels to hold as many as 5 million pilgrims in the future if the need arises.

According to authorities, the bridge is 950 meters (1,039 yards) long and 80 meters (87 yards) wide. Each floor is 12 meters (13 yards) high with three tunnels and 12 entrances and 12 exits in six directions. It has a helicopter pad for emergencies.

According to Mohammadi, the project has 509 advanced closed-circuit television cameras monitoring pilgrims' movements. Those cameras feed into the main operations room, which oversees the Jamarat Bridge and the surrounding areas - all screened by dozens of security officers on 72 monitors at the operation room.

The stoning ritual is done over at least two days, where pilgrims stone three pillars at Mina - believed to be where the Prophet Abraham stoned the devil when he tried to dissuade him from obeying God's orders to slaughter his son. According to tradition, the event was a test from God, who gave Abraham a ram to slaughter instead.

The last ritual that marks the end of Hajj is when pilgrims go from Mina to Mecca to make a last visit to al-Masjid al-Haram, Islam's holiest site, before going back home.

The ritual is called Tawaf al-Wada'a - or farewell circumambulation in the holy mosque. It's where pilgrims go around the black cube seven times counter-clockwise asking that their Lord accept their pilgrimage and grant them another visit to the holy city.

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Filed under: Hajj •Saudi Arabia

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November 25, 2009
Posted: 747 GMT

CNN's Isha Sesay explains why millions of Muslims make a pilgrimage to the Hajj each year.

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Filed under: Hajj

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Posted: 742 GMT

By Daniela Deane, CNN

London, England (CNN) - Forget stampedes, fires and terrorist attacks. The big fear this year concerning the Hajj, the annual millions-strong pilgrimage to Mecca, is swine flu.

Swine flu has already killed four pilgrims this year, Saudi Arabia's health ministry announced Saturday, almost a week before the pilgrimage's peak.

Three of the victims - a woman from Morocco and men from Sudan and India - were in their seventies. The fourth was a 17-year-old girl from Nigeria.

The Health Ministry said none had been vaccinated against the H1N1 virus - despite their recommendations - and all had underlying health problems, including cancer and respiratory illness. A ministry spokesman said more than two dozen other cases had been detected among arriving pilgrims.

Latest figures from the World Health Organization (WHO) show the virus has killed 6,750 people worldwide.

Skittish health officials in Saudi Arabia have worked hard to quell fears that the pilgrimage - the biggest yearly congregation of people in the world - will contribute to the global spread of the virus, inviting international health experts to make recommendations and screening pilgrims as they arrive.

During the climax of the pilgrimage, crowds can reach a density of up to seven people every 10 square feet - the perfect storm of flu transmission.

The kingdom, though, stopped short of imposing any travel bans to Saudi Arabia, which earns billions of dollars a year from the pilgrimage.

"Hajj is a major responsibility [for us]," Gen. Mansour Al-Turki, security spokesman for the Saudi Ministry of the Interior, told CNN. "We are prepared for everything."

Performing the Hajj by traveling to Mecca and Medina is an obligation for all able-bodied Muslims who can afford it at least once during their lifetime. Al-Turki said up to three million are expected this year.

The Hajj season - dates vary depending on the sighting of the new moon - peaks between Wednesday and Saturday this year, just as the winter flu season gets underway in the Northern hemisphere.

Dr. Ziad Memish, deputy Saudi Health Minister, told CNN the kingdom invited 25 international experts, including specialists from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and the WHO, to advise them on how to deal with the pandemic. He said the team inspected airports, seaports, and other facilities and strategies Saudi Arabia had set up to deal with any outbreak.

Memish said the CDC recommended setting up a mobile alert system used in the Hurricane Katrina disaster in the U.S. where mobile devices will document any suspected flu cases via GPS to a command center at the Ministry of Health.

He said the experts also recommended the country continue using thermal screening at arrival points to test pilgrims for fevers. If a pilgrim exhibits symptoms, they will be quarantined until the symptoms disappear.

Memish told CNN a team from the CDC will be staying throughout the Hajj to help the government deal with any problems.

Saudi health authorities ordered 11 million doses of the H1N1 vaccine, giving priority to government workers working at the Hajj. They recommended pilgrims be vaccinated before coming - although clearly, many have not complied.

Hundreds of people have died in recent years in stampedes, fires and demonstrations. The biggest stampede killed 1,426 people in 1990 in a tunnel leading to a holy site.

Political extremism has also claimed lives.

In 1979, 151 people were killed and more than 500 wounded after Saudi security forces stormed the Grand Mosque in Mecca to free pilgrims held hostage by Islamist militants. In 1987, 402 people were killed, according to Saudi official figures, when security forces tried to break up an anti-U.S. demonstration by Iranian pilgrims.

During the Hajj, pilgrims throw stones at pillars representing the devil. They circle a black holy stone in Mecca's Grand Mosque seven times. They ready themselves by abstaining from sex, hunting, killing or arguing.

The stoning has proved the most dangerous of the rituals. But bridges have been built at four levels at the site to help prevent a recurrence of fatal stampedes, Al-Turki told CNN.

Al-Turki said the Saudis depend on "a lot of technology" to monitor the crowds, including CCTV cameras and an early warning system that constantly measures the density of crowds in different locations.

He said U.S.-made Sikorsky S-92 helicopters, introduced last year, monitor the crowd situation from above, sending pictures back to command and control centers.

He said new fire-resistant tents have drastically cut down the number of fires.

This year, though, the Saudis are more worried about flu than anything else.

In a bid to stem any outbreak, Deputy Health Minister Memish said a religious Fatwa has been issued saying face masks are acceptable this Hajj, as are alcohol-based hand sanitizers. Usually, stitched clothes are prohibited on the body as is all contact with alcohol.

Not all pilgrims have gotten the news though.

"You can't wear something to cover your face for the women," said pilgrim Lateefa Khan, traveling to Mecca from the U.S. "The face has to be shown."

Despite the flu fears, Khan said she's thrilled to be going.

"I am leaving my kids behind so I can concentrate fully on doing Hajj," she told CNN. "I'm looking forward to focusing all my time on worshipping."

Amir Ahmed contributed to this report.

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August 10, 2009
Posted: 803 GMT

By Mohammed Jamjoom

(CNN) - The Saudi Arabian office of a Lebanese television station was shut down after the station aired an interview with a Saudi man who bragged about his sex life, authorities said.

Saudi authorities closed the office of LBC (Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation) for "two reasons," Abdul-Rahman Al-Hazza, spokesman for Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Culture and Information, told CNN.

"No valid operating license, and a violation of media policy in Saudi Arabia."

He said LBC violated the media policy by filming and subsequently airing an episode of its popular show "A Thick Red Line" featuring Mazen Abdul Jawad, a 32-year-old airline employee and divorced father of four who spoke openly about his sexual escapades, his love of sex and losing his virginity at age 14.

Abdul Jawad is also shown in his bedroom, where he holds sexual aids up to the camera. The episode ends with him cruising the streets of Jeddah in his car looking for women.

The episode caused an uproar in deeply conservative Saudi Arabia, where Sharia law, or strict Islamic law, is practiced. Pre-marital sex is illegal, and unrelated men and women are not permitted to mingle.

The segment in question has been posted on the video sharing site YouTube since its initial broadcast last month, and has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.

Local media reported Abdul Jawad was arrested a few days after the program aired, and has been detained since last week. Some reports have suggested he could face punishments as severe as flogging or even the death penalty for the alleged crime of publicizing vice.

Suleiman Al-Mutawae, acting spokesman for Jeddah police, told Arab News, an English-language daily newspaper in Saudi Arabia, that speaking about promiscuous acts "is a violation of the Sharia regulations on the one hand and against Saudi customs on the other." All newspapers require government permission to publish in Saudi Arabia.

Before Abdul Jawad's detention, Arab News reported he initiated a damage-control campaign, apologized for his comments and was considering filing a complaint against the show's producers for presenting him "in the worst possible manner by taking two hours of footage and condensing it down to a minute-long segment."

CNN has been unable to reach Abdul Jawad or his lawyer for comment. LBC has not commented on the situation.

Asked how long LBC's Jeddah offices will be closed, Al-Hazza said it was "too early to ask that question," but noted that only the Jeddah offices of the channel had been shut down. LBC's Riyadh office remains open, he said.

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Filed under: Media •Saudi Arabia

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August 8, 2009
Posted: 1639 GMT

According to Arab News, the first official society to care for patients living with HIV/AIDS in Saudi Arabia was launched this week; a notable development in the Kingdom where the presence of the disease wasn't admitted only a few years ago.

Click here to read more on this issue.

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Filed under: Health •Saudi Arabia

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