Snapchat, the video and photo messaging app, has agreed to block users from accessing Al Jazeera content in response to demands from the Saudi government.

Saudi authorities said that the Qatari-backed broadcaster’s Discover Publisher Channel on Snapchat violated local laws.

A Snapchat spokesperson said:

We make an effort to comply with local laws in the countries where we operate.

Al Jazeera criticised the social media platform’s decision to comply with a request from a country with one of the world’s most restrictive media environments.

Mostefa Souag, Al Jazeera’s acting director-general, said:

We find Snapchat’s action to be alarming and worrying. This sends a message that regimes and countries can silence any voice or platform they don’t agree with by exerting pressure on the owners of social media platforms and content distribution companies. This step is a clear attack on the rights of journalists and media professionals to report and cover stories freely from around the world.

Morad Rayyan, head of Incubation and Innovation Research at Al Jazeera added that Snapchat’s move undermines freedom of expression.

Snapchat is a US-based company, publicly traded, and it stands for freedom of expression. We are working on contingency plans to ensure our content is available on other platforms. We are urging them [Snapchat] to review the decision that was made. They were the ones who invited us to be one of their news partners for the region.

There are an estimated eight million Snapchat users in Saudi Arabia, which is one of the largest social media markets in the Middle East.

The broader Gulf crisis

Al Jazeera is a state-funded broadcaster headquartered in Doha, Qatar.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic and transport links with Qatar three months ago, accusing the country of funding terrorism.

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Qatar has repeatedly denied the charges.

In exchange for a return to normal relations, the four countries issued 13 demands to the Qatari government at the end of June.

These included a request to shut down Al Jazeera television and distance itself from Iran.

Just say yes

Social media giants like Snapchat face a dilemma when deciding whether to comply with requests from autocratic regimes to remove content.

Abiding by local laws can often be more commercially viable than confronting widespread censorship.

In May, Thailand’s military government, otherwise known as the junta, demanded that Facebook take down content insulting the Southeast Asian country’s monarchy.

Thai authorities threatened to ban Facebook across the country if the social media platform refused.

In the end, Facebook removed 178 of the 309 pages drafted by the Thai courts for removal and that was deemed sufficient.

Last month, Apple’s chief executive Tim Cook defended his company’s decision to comply with the Chinese government.

Chinese authorities had asked Apple to remove Virtual Private Networks (VPN) software from the App Store.

VPNs allow people to circumnavigate a country’s internet restrictions. Cook said:

We would obviously rather not remove the apps. But like we do in other countries we follow the law wherever we do business.