'Searching for Freedom' in Saudi Arabia

"Searching for freedom, dignity, justice and equality" was the top slogan of Fouad Al Farhan's Arabic Internet journal. Farhan, one of the most popular Saudi bloggers, is now in jail.

The 32-year-old owner of a small IT business was arrested Dec. 10 on charges of "violating nonsecurity regulations." He is detained for interrogation in his Red Sea city of Jeddah.

In a letter posted on his blog, which continues to be updated by his friends, Al Farhan says they picked him up because he "wrote about political prisoners in Saudi Arabia" and refused to apologize. (http://www.alfarhan.org)

On his blog, Al Farhan called for political reform and wrote comments in defense of a group of Saudi academics who were detained last year. He also criticized public figures and government institutions, including the judiciary system.

In October Al Farhan wrote: "I suggest we address some of the public figures in the kingdom as 'Saints.' They are Saudis like us, but whoever criticizes them is sent to prison."

Gen. Mansour Al Turki, spokesman of the Saudi interior ministry, told ABC News no date was set for the release of Al Farhan, but he declined to give further details on the process of the interrogation.

Coverage of Al Farhan's case was neglected by the Saudi press. According to Khaled Al Maeena, editor in chief of the Saudi English language daily Arab News, his paper was the only Saudi publication to report the story.

"There is no legislation ruling Internet publications in Saudi and I don't believe that anyone should be arrested for expressing their opinions. But what happened will not stop young Saudis from blogging," Maeena said.

Free Al Farhan

Meanwhile, Saudi bloggers launched a campaign for the release of Al Farhan. International human rights organizations and Saudi activists have urged the Saudi interior ministry to release Farhan. (http://ar.freefouad.com/?p=92)

In Washington, the U.S. administration has also raised "a clear message" on the case "at a relatively senior level," said the State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

The flap around Al Farhan's arrest comes ahead of President Bush's visit to the Saudi capital of Riyadh as part of his Middle East tour that will also include Israel, the Palestinian territories, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.

However, in the Arab media most of the people are skeptical of Bush's agenda especially when it comes to supporting democratic reform in the region.

"Can Bush point out for us the democracy in the countries he is visiting?" wrote Abdel Bari Atwan, editor in chief of the Arab daily Al Quds Al Arabi.

The Country of Blocking

"Saudi Arabia is one of the strictest Arab countries, they had Internet facilities since 1994, but they only offered it to the public in 1999," said Rasha Abdulla, assistant professor at the Journalism and Mass Communication department at the American University in Cairo and author of the book "The Internet in the Arab World, Egypt and Beyond."

The five-year ban on Internet access was imposed in order to "protect the Saudi citizens from the inappropriate material on the Internet" as posted on Saudi official sites.

They claimed it was to block pornography and violence, but in practice it blocked political views, news about the royal family and any religious interpretation other than the Wahabi version of Islam.