Enjoy the match, but let’s keep it civilized
A particularly unpleasant form of sports fanaticism and intolerance, which produces gangs of football hooligans sometimes known as “ultras,” has been with us for decades. It may manifest itself in loss of control, physical abuse of others, and stadium riots even leading to loss of life. This blind hatred of an opposing team and its fans can cause some people to forget many of the civilized principles of how to relate to others. As technology has developed, so have the mechanisms and forms of this intolerance, social media being a prominent example; both before and after a football match, whether it’s a humdrum fixture or a vital cup final, the most extreme comments may be found on Twitter. Of course, the nature of social media means that while there may be many abusive offenders, they are also easier to track down.
Abusing rival fans online is covered by the law against cybercrime. The Public Prosecution has warned in the past against the use of social media or any other digital means to abuse or defame anyone, or to send or publish content that is contemptible, offensive or repugnant. Offenders may be imprisoned for up to one year and fined up to SR500,000 ($133,310).
In addition, anyone producing content contrary to public morality may be imprisoned for up to five years and fined up to SR3 million.
Irresponsible media outlets, forgetting their professional obligation to be transparent, impartial and balanced, sometimes make matters worse. The Saudi Federation of Sports Media has a regulatory role; if content is deliberately misleading, or violates professional ethics, the offender’s membership may be suspended or terminated.
The administrative culture of some sports entities is also weak, and there is currently an exchange of provocative statements among club leaders and administrators that has inflamed fanaticism among supporters. The Code of Discipline and Ethics of the Saudi Football Federation prohibits abuse through newspapers, television, public statements and other forms of communication, with fines for offenders ranging from SR40,000 to SR300,000.
It is also important to note that clubs may be held responsible for misconduct by their fans, such as throwing objects on the field, vandalism of facilities, intrusion and verbal abuse. They may be fined from SR30,000 to SR100,000, banned from playing matches at home, or made to play behind closed doors.
In 2017, a number of ministries and agencies received Saudi Cabinet approval for long-awaited regulations to reduce sports intolerance. What is required is an integrated system that includes the Ministry of Media, the Ministry of the Interior, the Sports Authority and the General Commission for Audiovisual Media, with the strict application of legal sanctions against any content that provokes or incites the public.
The other important aspect of limiting this behavior is public awareness and guidance, which should be led by the Ministry of Education.
• Dimah Talal Alsharif is a Saudi legal consultant, head of the health law department at the law firm of Majed Garoub and a member of the International Association of Lawyers. Twitter: @dimah_alsharif