Reporters Without Borders (RSF) notes that the Saudi media have said nothing about the complaint it filed a week ago in Germany accusing Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) of crimes against humanity. This silence speaks volumes about the government’s control of the media landscape and persecution of Saudi journalists, RSF said.
RSF’s announcement on 2 March that it had formally accused MBS and other senior Saudi officials of crimes against humanity for murdering Jamal Khashoggi and jailing more than 30 other Saudi journalists was covered prominently by the Arabic-language services of international media such as the BBC, France 24, Monte Carlo Doualiya and Alhurra, the London-based pan-Arab multimedia outlet Al-Arabi Al-Jadeed, and the Turkish media outlets Anadolu and TRT. But not by Saudi media.
The Saudi media, including Al-Arabiya TV and the governmental Saudi Press Agency (SPA), pretended it never happened although it made the front pages of the Washington Post and Le Monde. Instead they reported matters of no consequence, with no relevance to the real world.
“King, Crown Prince congratulate Bulgaria president on National Day,” the Saudi Gazette headlined, for example.
It was only on 6 March that the political commentator and academic Turki Al-Hamad, who has more than 400,000 Twitter followers, referred to the story, controversially remarking: “Even if MBS was involved in Khashoggi's murder, which is impossible (...) I wouldn’t put the fate of an entire nation in danger for someone who sold out and for an affair that was manipulated.” As some posts pointed out, it was ironic that Al-Hamad received support from Khashoggi when he was himself arrested in December 2012.
“The Saudi media silence shows that the kingdom’s press is completely gagged,” said Sabrina Bennoui, the head of RSF’s Middle East desk. “A story of this kind about such a major political figure as the crown prince, the de facto leader, would have been big news in any country with free and independent media. The total absence of coverage of this story is an even more eloquent acknowledgement of the climate of self-censorship for journalists than massive, unanimously critical coverage would have been.”
The declassification of the CIA report on the Khashoggi murder on 26 February, four days before RSF’s announcement, had nonetheless triggered many pro-MBS tweets from anonymous accounts. Claims that the US had no evidence began being widely shared with the hashtag #AllOfUsMBS the next day on automated Twitter accounts linked to the authorities to give the impression of a spontaneous surge of public support.
They included a photo of the crown prince leading a delegation that had come to close the Formula E Grand Prix (“ePrix”) race that was held for the third year running in Diriyah, a suburb of the capital, Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia is ranked 170th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.