Saudi gearing up to regulate YouTube


The Saudi government is setting up to monitor and regulate YouTube and other online channels, having this week entrusted the task to its General Commission for Audiovisual Media, established last year to regulate the broadcast industry. There has even been talk of issuing permits to Youtube subscribers, which would appear to signal the introduction of a system of regulation governing posting videos to the service. 

The governmental official’s statement went viral on Twitter.

The official’s comments caused an immediate reaction among social media users, many expressing the opinion that the previous era of governmental supervision on media outlets has long gone. 

The official later published a statement saying that his statement was misquoted and what he actually meant was the need to “contain” Saudi talents on YouTube to encourage and provide them with guidance.

As we all know the programmes of Jeddah-based UTURN, from drama to reality shows, are typical. "3al6ayer", or "On the Fly", is a Saudi version of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart". "Eysh Elly" is a lighthearted weekly review of Arab online videos.

As of mid-September, UTURN had 286 million views on YouTube and 8 million followers on social media such as Facebook and Twitter, most of them Saudis, said Abdullah Mando, 27, who set up the company in 2010 with two university friends.

The secret of UTURN's success is simple, but in a Saudi context, rather revolutionary: give the audience what it wants.

The Internet's challenge to traditional media is not unique to Saudi Arabia. YouTube has helped fund around 100 new channels on its platform, and 25 attract more than 2 million views per week as of February, according to the most recent data provided by the company.

But the restrictions on Saudi society, where morality police patrol public spaces to enforce approved modes of behaviour, have created a uniquely captive audience for web-based news and entertainment, media experts say.

With a population of 28.3 million, Saudi Arabia is now the biggest user of YouTube per capita in the world, and according to analysts Semiocast was the eighth most active country on Twitter as of April, accounting for 2.33 percent of all tweets.

The Saudi government owns about nine free-to-air television stations through the Broadcasting Services of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (BSKSA), plus there are some privately-held local broadcasters such as Al-Majd, which is religiously-focused, and Rotana, owned by billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.

No foreign stations can broadcast within Saudi Arabia - although multiple channels reach the kingdom from other countries, capturing about 45 percent of market share - and cinemas are banned.

About 90 percent of households have satellite or digital television, according to consultants Informa Telecoms & Media.

Channels transmitting to the kingdom tend to rely on shows that present an idealised picture of Saudi life or foreign productions that are often remote from the experiences of most viewers in a country where nearly half the population is under 25.

The Saudi government has taken steps to monitor or block some web-based communications and content with an eye on the role social media played in the protests that unseated rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

But the authorities have so far given YouTube free rein.

  By 11 December 2013
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