A tribute to slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi outside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in late October. (Yasin Akgul/AFP/Getty Images)

Saudi Arabia, in a rare attempt to engage critics of its human rights record, privately received a delegation this spring from Reporters without Borders, the global press freedom group’s secretary general disclosed Tuesday.

The four-person delegation met with senior Saudi officials during the April visit, including the public prosecutor and the minister of justice, according to Christophe Deloire, who spoke publicly about the trip for the first time. 

The delegation demanded a thorough investigation of the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and pressed for the “unconditional and immediate release” of at least 30 journalists unfairly imprisoned in the kingdom, Deloire said. The invitation was the first from the Saudi government to RSF, he said, and the level of access the delegation was given was rare.

Afterward, the group kept the visit quiet, hoping that Saudi authorities might release at least some of the journalists, perhaps during the holy month of Ramadan.

But nothing happened. Ramadan came and went, weeks passed, and no journalists were released, Deloire said.

“We need action,” he added, explaining the decision to publicize the visit.   

 Saudi officials have frequently bristled at the public-shaming tactics used by advocacy groups to criticize the kingdom’s human rights record, calling such campaigns counterproductive. But RSF’s private engagement with the Saudi government suggested that alternative tactics might be fruitless, as well — at a time when the authorities, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, are pursuing perceived dissidents and clamping down on free expression with a largely unprecedented vigor, according to analysts.  

A Saudi government media office did not respond to questions about RSF’s visit.  

In the meantime, efforts to publicly discredit the Saudi government’s policies have continued apace. On Tuesday, the singer Nicki Minaj announced she was canceling a scheduled appearance in Saudi Arabia after facing public pressure from human rights groups to withdraw. “I believe it is important for me to make clear my support for the rights of women, the LGBTQ community and freedom of expression,” she said in a statement provided to the Associated Press. 

 The list of imprisoned media workers that RSF presented to Saudi officials included professional reporters and citizen journalists. One of the people on the list — Marwan al-Muraisy, a Yemeni journalist — briefly contacted his family after RSF’s visit, following months of uncertainty about his whereabouts, in what might have been the visit’s sole achievement.    

 One person on the list was temporarily released from custody after the RSF visit. But the woman, Hatoon al-Fassi, is a prominent women’s rights advocate and the subject of a larger global campaign by human rights groups demanding her release. Other journalists on the list include Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to imprisonment and public lashings in 2012 for “insulting Islam,” and Nazeer al-Majed, an author and journalist imprisoned since 2017.  

 The negotiations for RSF’s visit started a few weeks after Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor, was killed in October in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Deloire said. After the killing — a jarring blow to global press freedoms — Deloire tried to persuade the Saudi government to engage with its critics, seeing such engagement as a vital adjunct to RSF’s “naming and shaming” campaigns, including protests, he said.  

“I contacted the Saudi ambassador in Paris, to explain that Saudi Arabia can spend a lot of money — billions — on public relations firms, because its international image is terrible,” Deloire said.

Months passed, but at the end of March, the Saudi government extended an invitation to the group and promised access to high-level officials. Along with the justice minister and the public prosecutor, the group met with Adel al-Jubeir, the minister of state for foreign affairs, as well as the head of the government human rights commission.    

The delegation asked to visit imprisoned journalists after arriving in Saudi Arabia, Deloire said, but the request was denied. The group did not advocate for individual journalists but rather spoke about them as a group, fearing that focusing on specific cases might subject the journalists to retaliation.

Saudi officials complained that RSF and other international organizations and media outlets were biased against Saudi Arabia and receiving unreliable information about the kingdom from abroad, according to Rebecca Vincent, another member of the delegation.

Officials also complained about Saudi Arabia’s 2019 ranking in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index: No. 172 out of 180 countries that were scored, she said.