Saudi clerics attack media policy amid reform push

RIYADH, March 23 (Reuters) – A group of hardline Saudi clerics have called on the Islamic state’s new minister of information to halt efforts to liberalise the media by taking Saudi women off state television.

In a statement posted on Saudi websites, the 35 clerics including leading independent Abdul-Rahman al-Barrak argued that the Saudi government was violating its own rules on religion and morals.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, applies a strict version of Islamic sharia law, says the Koran is its constitution and gives clerics wide powers to monitor public behaviour.

“(Saudi laws) prohibit showing women dancing, singing, or making news broadcasts whether in Arabic or in a foreign language and ban any Saudi woman from appearing on television under all circumstances,” said the statement posted on Islamist websites, citing previous cabinet decrees.

Abdulaziz Khoja was appointed Minister of Culture and Information last month, replacing Iyad Madani who conservatives despised for loosening the controls by putting women on Saudi television and showing Western films.

“We place hope in you to implement a reform of media for the sake of God after deviance took root in the ministry, television, radio and press,” the statement said, addressing Khoja, who is also seen as liberal.

Khoja was appointed in a cabinet reshuffle that also saw the removal of two hardline clerics, signalling a drive to speed up reforms and reduce the influence of the religious establishment.

One of the clerics had said last year that the owners of Arab entertainment channels could face the death penalty for allowing liberal programming. Hardline clerics believe women should cover their faces and not mix with unrelated men.

Saudi state media has allowed women television presenters in recent years but Arab satellite channels, many owned by Saudi princes or businessman close to the royal family, have gone further with entertainment shows that ape Western television.

Saudi newspapers — also under the ministry’s remit — now sometimes carry photographs of Saudi women showing their faces.

King Abdullah has promoted cautious reforms as part of an effort to combat radicalism, launched after the Sept. 11 attacks of 2001 focused international attention on the influence of hardline Wahhabi Islam in Saudi Arabia. (Reporting by Souhail Karam; Editing by Dominic Evans)

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