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Jason Rezaian 

Global Opinions writer

Dec. 5, 2019 at 12:45 a.m. GMT+3

Saudi Arabia is moving on to the next phase of a massive public relations campaign aimed at re-branding one of the world’s most repressive societies as a haven for free expression.

The kingdom is investing enormous amounts of time and money into efforts to whitewash its terrible record on press freedom. Human rights watchdogs aren’t convinced. If there were any genuine reforms, that would be a highly welcome development. In reality, the crackdown on civil society, and on independent voices, is fiercer than ever.

That’s the backdrop for the Saudi Media Forum in Riyadh this week, an event that makes several promises that the authorities there have no intention of keeping.

“This event gives us an opportunity to create that platform where professionals from all over the world can express their views freely on issues particularly related to the media industry,” Mohammed Fahad al-Harthi, president of the Saudi Media Forum, said in a statement before the event.

That’s exactly the sort of ornate but empty pledge that has become a hallmark of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts to convince the world that he rules over a normal country rather than the sinister and repressive state most of us know it to be.

What’s disconcerting, though, is that representatives of several major Western media outlets agreed to take part in an event that is plainly designed to present Saudi Arabia as an open society. Reporters and editors from the Guardian, Le Figaro and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung were included in the lineup of speakers. The latter’s Middle East editor, Rainer Hermann, on Tuesday was part of a panel about the risks posed by fake news. (I sent messages to two of the journalists in question requesting comment; none of them had replied by the time this article was published.)

Christophe Deloire, the executive director of France-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF), visited Saudi Arabia earlier this year and met with the Saudi Journalists Association, the group that organized the Saudi Media Forum.

He said that he had frank discussions with members of the organization as well as high-ranking Saudi officials. They discussed both the killing of Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi and the large number of journalists behind bars in the kingdom. RSF believes there are 32 of them.

During his visit, Deloire says, he saw some signs of an internal Saudi debate about the need for greater latitude for the press. But he has yet to see any positive changes for the better; if anything, he says, matters have gotten worse. That’s why he declined an invitation to participate in the forum.

“Of course I can’t go to such an event under these circumstances,” Deloire told me. Saudi Arabia ranks 172 out of 180 countries in RSF’s annual World Press Freedom Index. “That makes it impossible for me to attend.”

Deloire said he had hoped that the first anniversary of Khashoggi’s murder might signal a change in Saudi behavior. To commemorate that gruesome event, RSF organized protests outside Saudi embassies around the world. But conditions for the media have only deteriorated since then.

“It takes an occasion like the anniversary to start moving forward, but unfortunately we haven’t seen signs of progress. In fact, in the past few days there’s been a new wave of journalists arrested,” Deloire said, referring to reports that at least seven reporters were detained in the kingdom in mid-November.

But it’s the diminishing solidarity of the international press that is truly worrisome.

Any Western journalists who took part in the Riyadh event this week had the “duty,” Deloire says, “to clearly express their concerns about the situation of journalists in Saudi Arabia, which is one of the worst countries in the world for the press. For that reason, you can’t consider this a normal media forum.”

Others in the press freedom community take a similar view.

Sherif Mansour, the Middle East and North Africa program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, says that — regardless of the presence of a few representatives of international media brands — it doesn’t change the fact that this is essentially a gathering of Saudi-affiliated media companies. The message the Saudi public relations machine is trying to send by holding the forum is clear.

“They are trying to tell the world that it’s time to move on from the killing of Khashoggi. But I completely disagree,” Mansour told me. “There isn’t a venue big enough to contain the enormous elephant in the room.”

Read more from Jason Rezaian:

The Saudis are back. But they never really left.

We were targeted for our journalism. But I haven’t lost hope.

Dictators and the Internet: A love story