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October 22, 2018 - Updated on October 24, 2018

RSF issues warning about Saudi Arabia's Press Freedom Index ranking

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is issuing an “incident report” about the press freedom situation in Saudi Arabia and the threat to the country's already poor ranking in the World Press Freedom Index after dissident journalist and commentator Jamal Khashoggi’s murder and the arrests of more than 15 journalists in the space of a year.

Saudi Arabia is ranked very low, 169th out of 180 countries, in the 2018 World Press Freedom We call on Saudi Arabia to end its violence against journalistsSign the petitionIndex that RSF published last April, but it will very probably fall even lower in the 2019 Index because of the gravity of the violence and abuses of all kinds against journalists.

 

 

Saudi Arabia's scores on "abuses and acts of violence against journalists" and "media environment and self-censorship" – two of the seven indicators used by RSF to determine a country’s ranking – are likely to worsen significantly unless the authorities take 

extraordinary measures.

 

Grave abuses against journalists

 

 

RSF has noted a steady increase in abuses against journalists since Mohammad bin Salman's appointment as crown prince in June 2017. Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October has shown that, despite a facade of modernism, the regime stops at nothing to silence critical journalists.

 

 

The number of journalists and bloggers in Saudi prisons has doubled since Bin Salman became crown prince. At least 28 are currently detained. Most of them were arrested towards the end of 2017. The reason for their detention and the place where they are being held are usually kept secret at the time of their arrest. Many journalists have "disappeared" in this way only to reappear some time later in a Saudi prison.

 

 

Once they are known, the reasons for these arrests have been indicative of a desire to silence independent and dissenting voices. Disseminating information that contradicts the official line tends to be seen as a threat to national security or as an insult to the country's leaders.

 

 

After accusing the royal family of tolerating corruption and nepotism in a TV appearance in December 2017, the journalist Saleh al Shehiwas sentenced to five years in prison in February on a charge of "insulting the royal court." Two columnists – Essam al Zamel, an economist, and Abdullah al Malki, an academic – are currently on trial for sharing reports and their own, often critical, analyses of Saudi politics and the Saudi economy.

 

 

Media environment and self-censorship

 

The Saudi government, which already had complete control over the traditional media, has tightened its grip on social media in the course of 2018, thereby reinforcing its arsenal as a press freedom predator.The “disinformation, amplification and intimidation” phenomena, which RSF has often condemned, have reached new unprecedented levels in the past two weeks.

 

 

The threat of imprisonment or the shame of being accused of treason has been persuading journalists to remain silent. Ever since the news of the Khashoggi's disappearance first broke, the pro-government media have been reminding Saudis of the existence of the electronic crimes law,under which "spreading rumours or false news" is punishable by five years in prison. It is a clear invitation to toe the government line, which for three weeks was to deny any Saudi government role in Khashoggi's disappearance.

 

 

When Eman al Nafjan, a blogger who wrote about such sensitive subjects as politics and women's rights in Saudi Arabia, was arrested last May, she was officially accused of threatening the kingdom's "security and stability,"while the Saudi media accused her of being a "traitor."As far as RSF knows, she is still awaiting trial.

 

 

Amplifying propaganda

 

 

The regime's response to the accusations about Khashoggi has been to yet again demonstrate its ability to orchestrate a well-established system of propaganda. The pro-government media have been inundating media and social networks with the government position, which is to accuse Qatar and Turkey of biased and alarmistcoverage of the affair. The Saudi media have also denied that Khashoggi was engagedto Hatice Cengiz, who played a key role by sounding the alarm about his disappearance.

 

 

The activities of the kingdom's troll armies and the pro-government hashtags on Twitter likening any criticism to treachery or a lack of patriotismhave surged since the start of the Khashoggi affair. Such hashtags as "We are all Salman and Mohammad" (referring to the king and crown prince), "The Saudi Kingdom rejects the threats" and "Stop following the fatherland's enemies"have been posted and retweeted tens of thousands of times.

 

 

In these circumstances, Saudi Arabia's "media environment and self-censorship" score, which was already bad last year, is likely to get much worse. This indicator represents 13% of a country’s evaluation in the World Press Freedom Index. The addition of "abuses and acts of violence against journalists" (20%) means that a third of Saudi Arabia's overall score for the 2019 Index is already seriously compromised.

 

 

Recommendations

 

In order to reverse this trend, RSF recommends that the Saudi authorities:

 

 

- Release all the information gathered in the sources of their investigation into Jamal Khashoggi's fate and agree to cooperate with the international commission of enquiry that is mandated by the United Nations secretary-general.

 

 

- Immediately and unconditionally release all professional and non-professional journalists who are being held pending trial or who have been convicted simply for exercising their profession or their freedom to inform; and, in particular, implement the decision of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention regarding Raif Badawi,Fadhel al Manasefand Waleed Abu-l-Khair.

 

 

- Guarantee journalists the right to due process, including the right to appear before an independent and impartial judge within a reasonable period, and the right of access to a lawyer.

 

 

- Amend the draconian provisions of the 2014 terrorism law (as amended in 2017) and the 2007 cyber-crimes law, abolish prison sentences and exorbitant fines for press offences, and refrain from using legislative and technical mechanisms for the surveillance and silencing of critics, dissidents and journalists.

 

 

- End political and security-based intimidation and cyber-harassment of journalists and media figures who share information that is at variance with the official line.

 

 

RSF issues an “incident report” whenever it notes a major deterioration in one or more of the indicators that are used to determine a country’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index. It is intended to be a warning to the authorities in the country concerned.

 

 

The seven indicators used to compile the Index are pluralism, media independence, 

abuses and acts of violence against journalists, the media environment and self-censorship, legislative framework, transparency, and the quality of the infrastructure that supports the production of news and information.