Saudi officials have warned that spreading rumors on social media could face up to five years in prison and a huge fine after claims emerged that young women were sexually harassed as they tried to make their way home following a canceled concert.
The concert was expected to be held on the evening of January 14 but it was called off at the last moment due to high winds. Disappointed fans struggled to find their way home from the venue on the outskirts of the Saudi capital Riyadh.
Reports began appearing on social media, saying that girls had gone missing, as well as warnings of sexual harassment.
Saudi authorities have said the sexual harassment claims were false.
Head of the Saudi Entertainment Authority, Turki al-Sheikh, subsequently posted a number of tweets that appeared to mock the reports as entirely made up.
This is while several women's rights activists, who have spoken previously about their concerns over harassment of women at entertainment events in the kingdom, insist that what was reported was genuine.
The activists say that some of those who posted reports on social media or hosted discussions online about the sexual harassment have received threats and closed down their accounts.
They believe that the official reaction is aimed at silencing those who might tarnish the new image of Saudi Arabia as an open, welcoming hub of entertainment in the region.
The women’s rights activists warn that criminalizing accusations of sexual harassment will corner victims and survivors from speaking of their experiences.
Last month, a human rights organization sounded the alarm on the worsening condition of human rights in Saudi Arabia, saying a dozen prominent women’s rights activists have been arbitrarily arrested by the Riyadh regime’s forces throughout this year.
Sanad human rights organization, which monitors and exposes human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, announced that the campaigners were detained in different cities of the kingdom, as part of a brutal crackdown led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman against political dissidents and opposition figures.
Sanad said that more than 100 women had been arrested ever since the 36-year-old crown prince assumed the position four years ago, and that some 60 of them were still languishing behind bars.
Ever since bin Salman became Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader in 2017, the kingdom has ramped up arrests of activists, bloggers, intellectuals, and others perceived as political opponents, showing almost zero tolerance for dissent even in the face of international condemnations of the crackdown.
Muslim scholars have been executed and women’s rights campaigners have been put behind bars and tortured as freedoms of expression, association, and belief continue to be denied.