Saudi Arabia, one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist, will host a media forum and award ceremony in what the kingdom said was an attempt to improve its reputation — an announcement that comes less than a year after the assassination of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
The head of the Saudi Journalists Association said Sunday that the annual event will “cement Riyadh’s name as the Arab Media Capital” and will “boost the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s reputation as a leading country in the global political and economic arena.”
The terse bulletin — which was under 200 words and posted to the website of the Saudi Press Agency, an arm of the government — made no mention of Khashoggi’s death, an unsurprising omission as the kingdom has dismissed a U.N. investigation that found its leaders were probably involved in the killing.
But the location of the forum, and its timing, struck many as darkly ironic.
“A media prize will do nothing to repair the extensive damage to #SaudiArabia’s international image in the wake of Jamal #Khashoggi’s murder,” Rebecca Vincent, the United Kingdom bureau director for Reporters Without Borders, wrote on Twitter.
Vincent’s organization, a global press freedom group, releases a yearly index that ranks countries and regions based on how much freedom journalists there have. This year, Saudi Arabia slid to 172 of 180 countries, worse than notoriously strict or dangerous nations such as Iran and Somalia.
The negative marks are largely due to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s crackdown on dissidents. Since his appointment in 2017, Reporters Without Borders said, the number of journalists and citizen journalists in detention has tripled, and “most are being held arbitrarily and are likely subjected to torture.”
“Saudi Arabia permits no independent media,” the watchdog organization’s analysis reads.
Yet, sometime before the end of the year, the kingdom said it will host the “Saudi Media Forum” to “discuss the development and challenges facing the industry.” Chief among those challenges, advocates at Reporters Without Borders have argued, is an increasingly hostile attitude toward the press.
“The level of violence used to persecute journalists who aggravate authorities no longer seems to know any limits,” the organization wrote, pointing to Khashoggi’s murder. “Out of fear for their survival, many of the region’s journalists censor themselves or have stopped writing altogether.”
Khashoggi, a veteran journalist from Saudi Arabia, was last seen in October, walking into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, trying to obtain documents for his upcoming wedding. After he didn’t emerge for four hours, his fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, called the police. His family, friends and co-workers feared for his safety immediately.
He had lived in the United States in a self-imposed exile since 2017, when he fled Saudi Arabia out of a fear that his criticism of the kingdom’s leadership would jeopardize his safety. Though Mohammed initially said, “We have nothing to hide,” grisly details about Khashoggi’s final moments emerged in the days and weeks that followed his disappearance.
On Oct. 31, Turkey’s top prosecutor detailed the murder, carried out by a 15-man hit team dispatched from Saudi Arabia. Agents, the prosecutor said, strangled Khashoggi shortly after he entered the consulate, and then killed and dismembered him. As officials in Riyadh changed their story repeatedly, President Trump continued to back the crown prince, calling him a “strong person” who “truly loves his country.”
Trump doubled down on his defense of Mohammed even as the CIA concluded that the crown prince had indeed ordered Khashoggi’s assassination. He called the country a “great ally.” But in a sharp rebuke to the president, the Senate voted in December to condemn Mohammed for the killing.
This summer, the U.N. report refocused international attention on Mohammed’s role. The author, human rights expert Agnes Callamard, wrote that everyone she consulted found it “inconceivable that an operation of this scale could be implemented without the Crown Prince being aware, at a minimum, that some sort of mission of a criminal nature, directed at Mr. Khashoggi, was being launched.”
Callamard called for sanctions and a U.N.-assisted criminal inquiry into the matter.
The kingdom hasn’t set a date for its forum, but journalists have already begun expressing trepidation about the fate that could befall its attendees. Brian Whitaker, former Middle East editor at the Guardian, summed up the sentiment in a succinct Twitter post:
“Saudi Arabia plans to host an international media forum,” he wrote. “Attend at your own risk.”