LONDON -- Reporters Without Borders, which advocates for press freedom, increased pressure on Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to release dozens of journalists currently detained in the country and to relax its heavy suppression of the news media and of dissenting voices.
A delegation from Reporters Without Borders met with top Saudi officials this year, including the foreign minister and justice minister, the organization said, in a visit that was spurred by widespread outrage about the killing of the Saudi dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi.
The main objective of the trip was to urge the Saudi government to free the 30 journalists, but the kingdom's dismal ranking in the organization's annual press freedom index also became a focus of conversation, according to Christophe Deloire, secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders, who was part of the delegation. Saudi Arabia was ranked 172nd out of 180 countries on the group's annual list for 2019.
"They took time to hear what we had to say, and to explain why the country is 172 in the press freedom index," Deloire said. "It's the first time they were so badly ranked, and they were of course not satisfied with that."
But little action has been taken in the weeks since -- the possibility of pardons for the detained journalists during the Ramadan period had been discussed but not acted on -- so information about the visit was released this week to add further pressure on Saudi Arabia, the group said.
Reporters Without Borders was among many international organizations to demand accountability for the killing of Khashoggi, who lived in the United States and who wrote columns for The Washington Post. Khashoggi vanished in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 while his fiancee waited outside.
Later, investigations determined that he had been ambushed there by a team of Saudi operatives and dismembered. The Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has been suspected of ordering his death.
Saudi officials at first denied any knowledge of Khashoggi's whereabouts, saying he had left the consulate alive, before later admitting that he had been killed in the building.
Last month, the United Nations released a report that concluded that Saudi officials had carried out an extensive cover-up of Khashoggi's killing that could not have taken place without the consent of Mohammed, the kingdom's leader.
Saudi officials have denied that the crown prince had any involvement.
The author of the report, Agnes Callamard, called for an international investigation into Khashoggi's death and criticized the U.N. for its paralysis over the case. She also noted that Mohammed "at a bare minimum" condoned the arbitrary detention of a large number of journalists and human rights defenders in the country.
The kingdom has a bleak human-rights record. Arbitrary detention of journalists and human-rights activists is the norm. Several prominent women's-rights activists have been held and reportedly tortured after being arrested last year.
Khashoggi had been barred from writing in Saudi Arabia as part of a broader crackdown on dissent in the country, and he had gone into self-imposed exile in the United States. There, he continued his criticism of the Saudi royal family in his columns for The Washington Post.
Deloire of Reporters Without Borders said, "The murder of Jamal Khashoggi caused extensive damage to Saudi Arabia's international image, marking a real low point for a country that has one of the world's worst press freedom records."
He added that "serious measures," such as releasing jailed journalists, would be needed to begin to repair the kingdom's reputation.
For three days in April, four representatives from Reporters Without Borders met with several Saudi officials, including the public prosecutor and media minister, as well as the foreign minister and justice minister. Deloire said that engaging directly with the Saudi government was a "necessary step."
A Group of 20 summit will take place in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, next year, and Reporters Without Borders said it was important that the country addressed its rights record before hosting the global event.
"When you take international responsibilities, you cannot be in a situation where you have so many journalists in jail and what happened last year," Deloire said.
He added that rather than engaging in extensive public relations campaigns to improve its image, Saudi Arabia simply needed to take action.
"We succeeded in opening a channel and will continue to press the need for the release of the 30 jailed journalists as the only way forward after Khashoggi's assassination," Deloire said.
A Section on 07/11/2019
Print Headline: Press advocates urge Saudis to free 30 journalists