Snap has bowed to pressure from the government of Saudi Arabia to censor a news channel operated by the Qatar-based news broadcaster, Al Jazeera, from the Snapchat Discover section of its app. The development was reported earlier by the WSJ.
Al Jazeera launched a Snap Discover channel in English in December 2015 -- but only launched its Arabia news channel in May this year.
A spokesperson for Snap provided TechCrunch with the following statement explaining the decision: "We make an effort to comply with local laws in the countries where we operate."
We understand that Saudi Arabia’s Communications and Information Technology Commission, acting on behalf of the Ministry Of Culture and Information, informed Snap that Al Jazeera’s Discover Publisher Channel was in violation of Article 9 of the Saudi law of Printed Material and Publication, and Article 6 of the Saudi Anti-Cyber Crime Law.
Article 9 of the Saudi law of Printed Material and Publication includes a series of censured clauses pertaining to media -- including not inciting feuds and spreading dissent among citizens, and not jeopardizing the country's security or serving foreign interests in conflict with national interest; while Article 6 of the Anti-Cyber Crime Law censures the: "production, preparation, transmission, or storage of material impinging on public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy, through the information network or computers."
So, tl;dr, the law enshrines a regime of total state-control of media. Reporters Without Borders ranks Saudi Arabia as 168th in the World Press Freedom Index, noting in a summary of the country that: "Saudi Arabia has no independent media, the authorities tolerate neither political parties, unions, nor human rights groups, and the level of self-censorship is extremely high. The Internet is the only space where freely-reported information and views can circulate, albeit at great risk to its citizen journalists. "
Al Jazeera has long been accused by the Saudis of being a tool for Qatar to stoke opposition to regional governments. And the broadcaster has certainly courted controversy.
This summer a group of Saudi-led Middle Eastern nations also broke off diplomatic ties with Qatar, accusing it of supporting and sheltering Islamist groups -- an accusation it denies.
The wider political context here is a regional power struggle, with Saudi and its Gulf allies seeking to maintain the political status quo and viewing Qatari as a destabilizing risk.
At the time of writing Al Jazeera had not responded to a request for comment but, in a statement to the WSJ, a spokesperson for the broadcaster couched Snap's decision to close its channel in Saudi Arabia as “an attempt to silence freedom of expression”.
"The fundamental question that Al Jazeera is asking is, how could a U.S. company which is publicly traded, and which stands for freedom of speech where access to social media is a constitutional right, deny these rights to others?” the spokesperson added.
Update: The broadcaster's parent company, Al Jazeera Media Network, has now released a statement. Dr Mostefa Souag, acting director general of the organization, said: “We find Snapchat’s action to be alarming and worrying. This sends a message that regimes and countries can silence any voice or platform they don’t agree with by exerting pressure on the owners of social media platforms and content distribution companies. This step is a clear attack on the rights of journalists and media professionals to report and cover stories freely from around the world.
“We at Al Jazeera, object to any form of censorship and restrictions to freedom of the media and the right to access information. We call on Snap Inc. and other global media organisations to reject demands of oppressive regimes to silence journalists. We would like to remind Snap Inc. that this decision violates the US constitution, American laws, and values of democracy. By blocking Al Jazeera’s Discover Channel, our followers in Saudi Arabia are denied the ability to follow our broad range of stories and coverage.”
We understand Al Jazeera's Snap content has not been removed from Snap's apps in other countries in the Middle East, including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Yemen, Tunisia, and Oman.
Its content is also still available via Snap in Al Jazeera's home territory of Qatar.
Snap launched the Discover feature in January 2015, introducing a new section to Snapchat where users could consume content created by broadcasters, publishers, music labels, artists and so on -- packaged up in the Snap Stories form. The app is especially popular with youth demographics.