Sexual harassment: Saudi Arabia threatens to imprison those spreading rumors on...

  • Sebastian Asher
  • BBC Arabic affairs editor

8 minutes ago

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The latest incident comes weeks after similar allegations surfaced at a music festival in Riyadh.

Saudi authorities have warned that anyone who spreads “baseless” rumors on social media could face a five-year prison sentence in addition to a hefty fine.

This comes after the cancellation of a concert in Riyadh led to reports on the Internet of young women being sexually harassed on their way home.

Some women have told the BBC of their concerns about publishing information about what happened after the concert was cancelled.

And the entertainment official in Saudi Arabia seemed to mock their claims in a number of tweets.

This is the latest development in the cultural and social clash generated by the opening of Saudi Arabia from a very conservative and austere society to a society that now hosts large entertainment events.

The much-anticipated concert, hosted by the South Korean band, Stray Kids, was canceled at the last minute of the evening on January 14 due to strong winds. Disappointed fans have struggled to find a way to go home from the concert venue on the outskirts of the Saudi capital.

Reports began appearing on social media about the loss of some girls, and warnings of sexual harassment were also issued. There seemed to be panic on the Internet, at least. And the tags spread, which reinforced the sense of danger.

The truth is still not clear yet.

Many of the people who say they were there reported that no such incidents occurred and that the organizers did a good job in difficult circumstances.

The case may have been reinforced by the fact that by evening, photos of men supposedly harassing women were published – but some of those photos were taken at random from social media accounts or simply from celebrities. This problem undermined the assertions of a number of women that these incidents occurred.

The chairman of the Saudi General Entertainment Authority, Turki Al-Sheikh, later posted a number of tweets in which he appeared to ridicule the reports of harassment as completely fabricated.

Soon, fake accounts appeared, mocking reports of harassment or missing girls, accusing those of publishing or republishing them of lying in order to discredit and embarrass Saudi Arabia.

But many women who have previously spoken to the BBC about their concerns about women being harassed at entertainment events in the kingdom confirm that some of what has been reported is true. They admit that this is difficult to prove – there do not appear to be videos or photos to support their claims, but their concerns go beyond this.

These women say that some of those who posted the reports on social media or hosted discussions online about what they believed happened received threats and had their accounts closed. They believe the official reaction is to silence those who might tarnish the new image of Saudi Arabia, as an open and welcoming entertainment hub in the region.

They fear that this will discourage women from speaking out about their experiences of sexual harassment – something already constrained by traditional social customs in the kingdom.

The hype about an entertainment event comes weeks after the four-day MDL Beast music festival in Riyadh, which attracted not only hundreds of thousands of people, but also a kind of backlash from conservative elements in the kingdom.

The event’s organizers had issued a code of conduct that stated that there would be zero tolerance for any form of harassment.

The feeling of the Saudi authorities’ seriousness in dealing with this issue was reinforced by the recent case of a man convicted of sexual harassment. His name was published in the local media – the first time this had been done.

Supporters of the ambitious project of the Saudi crown prince to open the kingdom to the world say that these are just simple problems, and they inevitably occur when a traditional society undergoes such major changes.

But for the women who have expressed concern about what they think happened on January 14, the fear is that their freedom to express their opinion has been further restricted.

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