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Saudi Arabia among countries with highest number of journalists in detention: RSF

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
This picture shows a general view of maximum-security al-Ha'ir Prison, located approximately 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Reuters)

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has sounded the alarm on the violence and abuse suffered by journalists around the world, stating that Saudi Arabia is among the five countries with the highest numbers of media professionals detained in connection with their work.

The international nongovernmental organization (NGO) said in a report on Thursday that there are currently 488 journalist imprisoned around the world in connection with their work, and the number is the highest since RSF began publishing its annual round-up more than 25 years ago.

The organization clarified that 103 of those detained are not professional journalists; as they are actually pro-democracy activists who express their views on social media.

It added that the number of female journalists imprisoned due to their profession increased by one-third compared with 2020, hitting an overall figure of 60. 

The Paris-based organization then named five countries with the highest number of journalists in prison, among them were Myanmar where 53 journalists are now behind bars followed by Vietnam (43), Belarus (32) and Saudi Arabia (31).

Reporters Without Borders also logged 46 journalists killed this year, and the number was the lowest since it began issuing annual tallies. Most of the killings were assassinations, is said, adding, "65 percent were deliberately targeted and eliminated."

The most dangerous countries were once again Mexico and Afghanistan, with seven and six journalist deaths respectively, followed by Yemen and India with four apiece.

RSF also counted 65 journalists and colleagues as kidnapped, with the majority of the abductions in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. 

Last month, Reporters Without Borders called on Saudi authorities to immediately release Yemeni journalist Ali Abu Lahoum after he received a 15-year prison sentence.

“This ruling shows that the use of Internet and social media platforms by journalists and bloggers, which are intended to be a place where they should exchange information and discuss various matters, is still strictly controlled in the kingdom,” Sabreen al-Nawi, director of the Middle East Division at RSF said.

It went on to say that the Yemeni journalist’s wife desperately tried to contact him several times, before she understood that her husband had undergone a criminal interrogation without the presence of an attorney.

The organization said the verdict was issued against the Yemeni journalist on October 26, more than two months after he was detained.

Abu Lahoum, who has been residing in Saudi Arabia since 2015, was reportedly working in a commercial media organization in the country’s southwestern region of Najran.

He had earlier worked as an executive director for the Saudi Arabic-language al-Wadi television station.

Saudi Arabia shows little tolerance towards journalists, including independent ones, and freedom of speech.

In its 2020 Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders said the kingdom ranked 170 out of 180 countries, where No. 1 is the most free.

Ever since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman became Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader in 2017, the kingdom has ramped up arrests of activists, bloggers, intellectuals, and others perceived as political opponents, showing almost zero tolerance for dissent even in the face of international condemnations of the crackdown.

Muslim scholars have been executed and women’s rights campaigners have been put behind bars and tortured as freedoms of expression, association, and belief continue to be denied.

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