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Mon 23 Feb 2009 09:14 AM

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Saudi lifts two year ban on controversial website

Lifting block on Elaph comes just a week after radical shake up of the government.

A two-year Saudi block against the London-based Elaph online daily has been lifted just a week after a radical shake-up of the government, it was reported on Monday. The lifting of the ban has not been officially announced by Saudi ministers, but the website’s technical department revealed a 40,000 hike in visitors from the Kingdom last Thursday - the first day the block was lifted.

According to Saudi daily Arab News, a high government official ordered the Communications and Information Technology Commission to lift the block, which was implemented in 2006 after a ‘blasphemous” letter was published on the site.

"We are happy here in Elaph. Saudi readers are very important to us," said Fahd Saud, Elaph's managing editor in Saudi Arabia, in an interview with the newspaper.

"The amount of readership and advertisements were both affected by the block," Saud added.

The lifting of the ban was one of many steps taken toward increased openness in the Kingdom being initiated by King Abdullah showing the government fully understood the importance of free press in the country's development , Saud added.

The offending letter was published by accident in the ‘Your View’ section of the site.

The site was closed a month later without an official explanation - despite the letter being pulled within an hour and a public apology by publisher and editor in chief, Othman Al-Omair, on Al Arabiya TV channel.

"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.

However, the ban was widely attributed to publisher Al Omair's controversial public outbursts on media censorship and state intervention in presenting accurate news and analysis.

But, the publisher had had nothing to do with the removal of the block, according to an inside source who did not wish to be identified.

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