A portrait of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during National Day celebrations in September 2018. The climate for press freedom has become more repressive under his rule. (AFP/Fayez Nureldine)
A portrait of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during National Day celebrations in September 2018. The climate for press freedom has become more repressive under his rule. (AFP/Fayez Nureldine)

‘New’ Saudi Arabia ushers in even more repressive climate for journalists

Marwan al-Mureisi knew the rules: even in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s “new” Saudi Arabia, issues touching on politics, religion, or the royal family were out of bounds. So in his reporting for the privately owned website Sabq and other outlets, al-Mureisi wrote about science, technology, and the need to embrace creativity and innovation–all hallmarks of the Crown Prince’s much-lauded reform agenda.

It wasn’t enough. On June 1, authorities arrested al-Mureisi from the Specialized Medical Center Hospital in Riyadh, while he was at the bedside of his five-year-old son, according to Khatab Alrawhani, a Yemeni journalist in Washington, D.C., with knowledge of al-Mureisi’s case.

“A group of Saudi security [personnel]…came in took him and left his child in the hospital alone,” Alrawhani said. “Since then, no one heard a word about him and his family [was] never granted permission to see him or to know where he is and what accusations [are] filed against him.”

None of the journalist’s recent articles appeared overly political or likely to lead to an arrest, but Alrawhani described al-Mureisi as “an influencer journalist that refuses to be part of [Saudi] campaigns and accept orders from the authorities on what to write. “

“He chose not to be in politics,” Alrawhani said, “But it seems that this isn’t an option anymore in the new Saudi Arabia.”

Since becoming crown prince in July 2017, Salman has directed a wide-ranging crackdown on dissidents under the guise of fighting corruption and extremism. Though he touts the need to modernize and open Saudi Arabia, Salman’s reform agenda has become an effective way to remove independent voices.

Saudi Arabia was already one of the world’s most heavily censored countries. But under Salman’s rule, authorities have wielded state mechanisms ostensibly focused on terrorism to silence journalists, including al-Mureisi. In February, CPJ documented how a specialized criminal court sentenced prominent columnist Saleh al-Shehi to five years in prison for “insulting the royal court” after the journalist commented on allegations of corruption on TV and in his writing.

The specialized criminal court is part of a system established in 2008 to prosecute terrorism-related cases, but CPJ has found the system is increasingly used to try journalists and perceived dissidents.

CPJ is investigating the possible jailing of at least 10 other journalists since Salman took power, but news of detentions sometimes doesn’t surface for months. Activists in contact with CPJ often have no knowledge of when authorities detained someone or where they are holding them. The journalists’ profile pages and blogs disappear behind “404 not found” messages, leaving only a breadcrumb trail of social media posts that stop the day of a rumored arrest.

The Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington, DC, did not reply to CPJ’s email requesting comment. CPJ was unable to find contact details of the State Security Presidency.

Even journalists advocating for policies supported by Salman are not safe. Eman al-Nafjan, whose blog Saudiwoman covered issues absent from other Saudi media outlets, was detained by the State Security Presidency in mid-May, alongside several other activists who campaigned against the ban on women driving. The next month, authorities ordered the driving ban to be lifted, but the arrests continued.

Nouf Abdulaziz, who wrote posts about women’s rights, including criticism of the ban on women driving, is also in custody. On her blog–which has been offline since her arrest but is available via the Wayback machine–Abdulaziz reported on Saudis detained in Iraq, trials of reformist activists, and the arrest of a Saudi writer for reporting on intra-royal family tension. Perhaps sensing the walls closing in, Abdulaziz penned an article to be published in the event of her arrest. “Maybe they see that being rid of me is the path to a better country, even though many of them do not know me or haven’t even heard my name before, despite that they have they feel entitled to judge me unfairly,” Abdulaziz wrote in a post published June 6–the day she was taken into custody.

Since her arrest, Abdulaziz has been held incommunicado and in an unknown location, according to the International Federation for Human Rights and the Gulf Center for Human Rights. Authorities also detained Mayaa al-Zahrani, after she posted the blogger’s article on her own site and social media, according to Hana Al-Khamri, a journalist who knows both women and who also republished Abdulaziz’s article in Arabic and English.

Al-Khamri told CPJ on September 23 that both bloggers remain in detention.

Ali al-Ahmed, a Saudi exile, Gulf analyst and longtime critic of the kingdom, told CPJ that authorities do not permit any independent political agency in the kingdom, whether journalistic or otherwise.

“It’s not just [Crown Prince Salman],” al-Ahmed said. “The Saudi motto of operating is ‘no private enterprise in politics is allowed’. You can’t come and pretend you have some role to play. We are the only ones who can say, do or act in terms of politics. Anyone who crosses that line would be arrested.”

Al-Ahmed, who now lives in the U.S., added, “This the most oppressive environment in terms of the number of people in jail. For many years it was mainly the Shia in jail, especially in Qatif region. But now, if you look at any section of society, it’s the same. The number of people in jail has increased exponentially, especially Islamists, liberal, professional classes.”

The journalists whose arrests CPJ is investigating mirror that trend, and the scope of their journalism is broad: women’s rights, corruption, and religious programming.

Some international journalists fête Salman‘s reform as a sign that he is moving the country into a more modern era. But so far, Salman’s impact has been to take an already repressive monarchy and make it a totalitarian state. In this new Saudi Arabia, the only voice is Salman’s.