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Kingdom lifts ban on controversial online newspaper.

Byline: Samir Al-Saadi

JEDDAH: A two-year Saudi block against the London-based Elaph online daily was lifted on Thursday. The move comes a few days after a major reshuffle in the government. According to the daily's technical department, the paper received 40,000 visitors to its website from the Kingdom on the first day the block was lifted.

"We are happy here in Elaph. Saudi readers are very important to us," said Fahd Saud, Elaph's managing editor in the Kingdom. "The amount of readership and advertisements were both affected by the block."

According to Arab News sources, a high government official ordered the Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) to lift the block.

Saud said the lift was one step of many taken toward increased openness that the Kingdom is currently experiencing under the leadership of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah. He added that the government fully understands the importance of free press in the country's development.

No official reason was given for the block, which was implemented in 2006. Saud said there had been some disenchantment with some reports, which had "angered a certain stream of thought."

One letter from a reader posted on Elaph's "Your Views" section was considered blasphemous. The letter was pulled within an hour and the daily's publisher and editor in chief, Othman Al-Omair, appeared on Al Arabiya explaining what had happened and apologizing for the mistake. Within the month the paper was blocked in Saudi Arabia.

"A technical error resulted in the publication of a particular opinion piece, but within an hour it came to our notice and the article was dropped," Saud said.

Elaph, as some people accuse, does not favor one stream of thought over another, he said, adding that the daily never prevented anyone from writing.

"We in Elaph have a tendency to forgive those who falsely accused us, so we wish others would forgive us if a mistake was made," he said.

The ban has been widely attributed to publisher Al-Omair's controversial public outbursts. In one case, he said the only thing Arab ministers of information could agree on was media censorship. He had also said the Internet represents the only hope of escaping censorship and state intervention in presenting accurate news and analysis.

The veteran Saudi journalist stirred public outrage in the Arab world when he said in an interview on Turki Al-Dakheel's "Idha'at," Al Arabiya channel's version of "Larry King Live," that he strongly believes one day humans will find a cure for death, a statement that defies Qur'anic teaching.

Elaph claims that it receives 15 million hits and 240,000 visitors daily.

The lift of the block came without any effort by its publisher, said an inside source that wished not to be identified.

On Feb. 15, Al-Omair attended a function to honor reporters at the Eastern Province Chamber of Commerce and Industry as an honorary guest. He was reported to have said at the event that he did not consider the block by the government to be among his top priorities and that he wouldn't strive to have it lifted.

Elaph claims that it receives 15 million hits and 240,000 visitors daily.

Veteran journalist Sir Sidahmed said government censorship is a thing of the past due to the Internet.

"Readers are interactive now," he said. "With technology they can easily place their comments on stories and publish their own through the Net, for example."

Copyright: Arab News 2009 All rights reserved.

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Publication:Arab News (Jeddah, Saudi Arabia)
Date:Feb 23, 2009
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