Global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said on Wednesday it had visited Saudi Arabia to seek freedom for 30 jailed journalists amid sustained Western criticism of Riyadh following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The group, known by its French acronym RSF, had not publicized its April visit, which it called unprecedented, in hopes that the authorities would pardon the detainees during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, which ended weeks ago, it said at the start of a media freedom conference in London.
Secretary-General Christophe Deloire led the delegation, which met Saudi officials including the ministers of justice and media, the minister of state for foreign affairs, the public prosecutor and the head of the state-backed human rights commission.
The Saudi government communications office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the visit and the status of the detainees.
The kingdom has come under heightened international criticism over its human rights record after Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered by Saudi operatives inside its Istanbul consulate last October.
The CIA and some Western countries believe the killing was ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, which Saudi officials deny. A U.N. expert last month said he and other senior officials should be investigated given credible evidence against them.
The detention and trial of around a dozen women activists, including journalist Hatoon al-Fassi and bloggers Eman al-Nafjan and Nouf Abdulaziz, on charges that include contacts with foreign journalists has also sparked Western outrage.
“A signal of strong political will from the Saudi government is now needed for this damage to begin to be repaired, and we believe that can only be accomplished by serious measures such as the release of all jailed journalists in the country,” said Deloire.
He added that engaging directly with the Saudi authorities was a “necessary step” which succeeded in opening a channel.
The detained journalists include prominent blogger Raif Badawi, who is serving a 10-year sentence for expressing controversial opinions online, and Saleh al-Shehi, a columnist for Arabic-language daily al-Watan who was arrested last year after accusing the royal court of corruption.
Saudi Arabia dipped into the bottom 10 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index, and is now ranked 172 out of 180 countries.
RSF said releasing the journalists was necessary for Riyadh to maintain its chairmanship of the G20 summit, which it is set to hold next year.