Around one thousand journalists attended Saudi Arabia’s first media forum in the capital city of Riyadh this week.
Global speakers and foreign journalists from a variety of countries took part in the two-day forum which began on Monday.
Awards were granted in six categories, in which only Saudi-based journalists were eligible, including press, visual production, pioneering media and media personnel of the year.
The event was organized by the Saudi Journalists Association (SJA) and aims to “contribute to the advancement and development of media work in Saudi Arabia and stimulate competition and professional creativity.”
The forum was also held to “contribute to the development of freedom of opinion and expression in front of media professionals.”
However, Saudi Arabia has been accused by international rights groups of detaining journalists and limiting freedom of speech.
Citing the London-based Al Qst Saudi rights group and the Associated Press, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in a report on November 27 that “from November 16 to 21, Saudi authorities arrested at least seven journalists, bloggers, and columnists.”
“Under Crown Prince Salman, anyone in Saudi Arabia who so much as thinks about reporting or writing can find themselves in a prison cell,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Senior Researcher Justin Shilad.
The country ranks 172 out of 180 countries in a Reporters Without Borders index regarding freedom of the media, according to AFP.
Shilad also accused the government of fixating on curbing journalistic freedoms.
“Saudi authorities must immediately end their brutal crackdown, and the international community must cease business as usual with a government bent on imprisoning journalists,” he added.
Saudi attempts at modernization have been marred by suspected involvement in the death of prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed in Istanbul last year.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, de-facto ruler of Saudi Arabia announced Vision 2030 campaign to overhaul the Saudi economy and society However, it’s success has been muted by the killing of Khashoggi in October 2018, blamed on the royal.
Khashoggi ‘s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, gave a press conference in Brussels on Tuesday with United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions amid a UN investigation into her fiance’s death.
Cengiz slammed the absence of international action following her fiancé’s killing which she dubbed “the most inhuman murder of the modern era.”
“This is not a file that can be closed like this,” she said on Tuesday.
“I want it to continue to disturb people. Some people have to lose sleep over it,” she added.
UN Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard expressed disappointment over EU relations with the Kingdom.
“The European Union has been, like the rest of the international community, extremely disappointing in its reactions and actions towards Saudi Arabia,” she said at the conference.
Mohammed al-Harthy, head of the media forum told Rudaw that the presence of a large number of journalists “ means that Saudi Arabia is ready to hold dialogues and forge relations with other countries.”
“We believe that many social, economic and political changes will happen in Saudi,” he said.
About 35 percent of the attendants were women.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) and other rights groups have criticized theSaudi government for limiting the rights of women, who are unable to perform many basic rights without male permission.
In a late January report, the monitor group explained “10 Reasons Why Women Flee” Saudi Arabia, which include no freedom to travel, to choose a marriage partner, domestic violence and political repression, among others.
However, some of the female journalists who spoke to Rudaw at the event said that they are happy with the situation at home.
Hasa Shahiri is a Saudi journalist. She told Rudaw that she has already seen changes in her country.
“Now [the situation] is different. Complete changes can be seen in the Kingdom. Few people worked in the past but now as you see 35 percent [of the attendants] are women. Some people believe that wearing a Niqab is an issue but it is not as it does not prevent someone to be successful,” she said, referring to the face that must be worn by Saudi women in public spaces.