An Even More Repressive Saudi Climate for Journalists under Crown Prince
October 19, 2018
Justin Shilad/ Committee to Protect Journalists & Nouf Abdulaziz / Hana Al-Khamri @hanaalkhamri
In Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's "new" Saudi Arabia, issues touching on politics, religion, or the royal family are out of bounds. On June 1, a group of Saudi security personnel arrested journalist Marwan al-Mureisi at the bedside of his five-year-old son inside Riyadh's Specialized Medical Center Hospital. They took him and left his child in the hospital alone. Since then, no one has heard from him. His family has been unable to see him or to know where he is held or what accusations were filed against him.
'New' Saudi Arabia Ushers in Even More Repressive Climate for Journalists
Justin Shilad/ Committee to Protect Journalists
NEW YORK (September 25, 2018) -- 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.
Justin Shilad is a Middle East and North Africa Research Associate at the Committee to Protect Journalists.
A Letter from a Recently Arrested
Women's Rights Activist in Saudi Arabia
Hana Al-Khamri @hanaalkhamri
Read the last letter from Nouf Abdulaziz @nofah1, writer, Saudi women's rights activist, and a fierce defender of prisoners of conscience. Arrested on Wednesday, June 6, 2018 and held incommunicado.
Free #Mayaa_AlZahrani #Nouf_Abdulaziz and their fellow activists
(June 10, 2018) -- "I never thought I would have to say this, to have this conversation, to try and justify myself and save what can be saved from the ruin that has overcome me and all that I love.
I lose the words while I think about anything, and how to explain myself, mind, life, ambitions, dreams to people that now see me as a criminal who deserves what has happened to her.
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.
It has been said often that people will criminalize the other that they do not know, if ruin or trouble overcomes him, they start to ask: what did he do? What is his crime? He must have committed a crime, for that makes it easier to excuse their inadequacy and failure in front of another person who is just like them, who has been violated and overcome with misery.
This person that is just like them, who isn't different than them in any way, for he is someone's son or someone's husband, he lives a similar life and similarly strives to make something meaningful in his life, remembering that causes them to empathize and feel guilty for having judged so quickly. I will then urge you to empathize with me, I will shake your hand in peace and introduce you to myself:
Hello, my name is Nouf, and I am not a provoker, inciter nor a wrecker, nor a terrorist, nor a criminal or a traitor. I am the daughter to a great mother who suffers because of me -as I think- and a daughter to an honourable and honest family that has undergone a lot of harm because of what happened to me.
I am a Postgraduate student that never got the chance to finish her education. I usually sum up myself with a few characteristics: a writer, a reading addict since I was six years old, my father tells me that I am intelligent; I am a quiet girl except for the questions that storm my mind.
In efforts to end this silly introduction, I will talk to you and share some of the questions that overcome my mind:
Why is our homeland so small and tight, and why am I considered a criminal or an enemy that threatens it!
I was never but a good citizen that loved her country and wished the best for it, a loving daughter and a hardworking student and a devoted worker, who never demeaned hated or envied anyone, so what about my country, and I don't know any fault other than that I am always thinking of each member of my community that has been treated unfairly, and I try to help them either by volunteering my time or effort, so how does it this become my fault? Me who always used to go to direct authorities that could help them, be it lawyers or human right NGOs, so how is that taken against me?!
How does corruption reach people to take advantage of me to attain promotions and to fill their pockets with money on my account, to end my life and present and future for absurd ends that isn't but corruption in a land, and to distort the image of my homeland to be an oppressive country without any critical thought or account to what they do, to whose benefit is all that is happening?
But it's okay, take my life, time, health and all that I own if that is for the benefit of my country, take my present, future and all that I love if that satisfies you and if it's for the good of our people, but don't take away my right to life and freedom and dignity, don't take away all that I have dreamt of and striven for just to be a scapegoat for the benefit of another.
And my God, if all that is happening makes you happy, then do unto me until you are satisfied, if what is happening does not please you, help our people to see clearly to know that their sister in the homeland is mistreated and she does not deserve other than her freedom, to maintain her dignity and to have the warmth in her parents arms, that has been taken away from her"
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