Saudis are reporting activists who speak out against the government through a publicly available Google and Apple store app. Some have been sentenced harshly, while others are self-censoring.
Anonymity is all that keeps “Real,” a Saudi Arabian women’s rights campaigner, safe. She uses that account on Twitter to campaign for victims of domestic violence in the kingdom, making their tales viral throughout the country and around the world. Her job is fraught with danger.
“Every day we wake up to hear news that someone has been caught or taken,” Real said, using a voice modulator to disguise her voice. “Today I’m here with you, telling you my story; tomorrow I might be apprehended.”
Real, like other activists, is concerned about the cost of speaking out online in Saudi Arabia, which was revealed in August. Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani, a Saudi academic, was sentenced to 45 years in prison for “using the internet to undermine Saudi Arabia’s social fabric.” On August 16, a Ph.D. student named Salma el-Shabab was sentenced to 34 years in prison for a series of tweets in support of activists and members of the kingdom’s political opposition in exile.
El-Shabab was reported to police via Kollona Amn, a smartphone app accessible for download from the Apple App store and the Google Play store that allows regular residents to spy on their fellow countrymen.
The Saudi leadership has frequently urged residents to spy on one another, but the Saudi interior ministry’s Kollona Amn app, launched in 2017, has made it easier to report comments critical of the regime or behaviour deemed objectionable by the conservative theocracy with a few taps. Legal-rights activists say they’ve seen a substantial increase in court cases using the app in recent years, as the country’s current leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sultan — abbreviated MBS — extends the use of technology to watch, threaten, and control its residents at home and abroad.