The two men, who are not being named by RSF for security reasons, fled Saudi Arabia amid growing threats to their safety in September after a state security official exposed their gay relationship, which is tantamount to a death sentence in the country’s oppressive Wahhabi society.
When they arrived in Australia on tourist visas on 13 October with the intention of requesting asylum, they initially went through immigration without any problem, but then customs officers detained and handcuffed them, and handed them over to the Australian Border Force, which unilaterally rescinded their tourist visas and transferred them to an immigration detention centre.
According to the account that RSF obtained from one of the two journalists, conditions in the detention centre are appalling, the detainees impose their own law and large amounts of drugs circulate.
The two journalists were separated two weeks ago, when one of them was transferred to a hospital for treatment. The other journalist, who speaks poor English, described being approached in the detention centre by another Saudi detainee who asked him lots of questions, making him suspect that he might be a Saudi agent.
“Saudi Arabia has people everywhere,” he said. “He might well be in touch with the embassy. The threat of our deportation looms over us still. If we are to be deported, we will be made to disappear upon returning to Saudi.”
RSF wrote to Australia’s home affairs minister on 6 November to alert him to this situation but has yet to receive a reply.
“The welcome that Australia has given these two Saudi journalists is absolutely disgraceful,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “They are very frightened of being sent back to Riyadh and we clearly do not want Canberra to be responsible for another ‘Jamal Khashoggi.’ So we urge home affairs minister Peter Dutton to ensure that they are given bridging visas so that they can be granted asylum.”
The journalist with whom RSF is in contact also described the circumstances of their decision to flee Saudi Arabia. “On 5 September, my partner, who is a cameraman, and I both received calls asking us to turn ourselves in for questioning. On the same day my partner's family said they would kill me. We escaped Saudi two days later.”
This journalist, who worked both for international media such as CNN, CBS News and the BBC and for the Saudi media ministry, had received an initial warning in September 2018.
“I was arrested by state security and was brought in for interrogation about a CBC report I partially worked for. State security threatened me, saying that that if I didn’t stop working with foreign media, they would reveal to our families that we are gay, leading to a death threat against myself.”
The Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi – who this journalist knew well and had worked for in the past – was murdered and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul a month later, on 2 October 2018.
At least 32 journalists and bloggers are currently detained in Saudi Arabia, twice as many as in 2017, when Mohammed bin Salman took over as Crown Prince. Saudi Arabia is ranked 172nd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index, while Australia is ranked 21st, two places lower than in 2018.