Neom promises to be the
“Region’s center for the thriving media industries”, which “will attract the best of emerging and established talent from the region and beyond, with an unprecedented commitment to industry education, innovation and production activity, all in a uniquely collaborative environment”.
But press freedom in Saudi Arabia is practically non-existent.
Independent media does not exist, and those failing to report the government-directed narrative find themselves harassed, detained or dead. According to Reporters Without Borders, the kingdom ranks 170 on its press freedom index – making it the tenth least free country for journalists on the planet.
The entire news industry in Saudi Arabia is state sanctioned. Those straying too far from the official version of events find themselves harassed, imprisoned, tortured or even killed – often on vague charges of blasphemy, harming the national image or terrorism.
And repression is not only reserved for those actively against the regime. As Reporters Without Borders puts it: “Journalists automatically become suspect if they opt for neutrality rather than toe the official media line, which is to sing MBS’s [Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s] praises.” Anyone, for example, suggesting a thawing of relations with Qatar, an end to war in Yemen or even criticism of Saudi Arabia’s close relationship with Israel will be a target of state repression – let alone those exposing the vast and endemic level of corruption at the heart of the regime.
The persecution of journalists does not even stop at the borders of the country. Using spies and advanced digital spyware technology, individuals are monitored the world over. In one particularly audacious case, the Saudi regime even hacked the phone of Jeff Bezos, the owner of the Washington Post and Amazon, and the richest person in the world. If this is how the Saudi regime treats the planet’s wealthiest individual, it is easy to imagine how it might treat a lesser-known dissident.
One notorious example of the Saudi kingdom’s persecution of the media was the assassination of Washington Post journalist and Al-Arab news channel editor-in-chief, Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi was told to attend the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October 2018. There, he was captured, strangled and dismembered by 15 of the regime’s assassins. Even the CIA, a stanch ally of the Saudi regime, claims that the murder was orchestrated by MBS himself. Khashoggi’s crime had been to use his words against the regime – his punishment was his execution by the regime’s hired killers.
The harassment of journalists takes many other forms as well – and one example is that of the state sponsored “electronic brigades”. These anonymous internet users obsessively target those considered traitors to the regime, threatening them and attempting to scare them into obedience.
The supposedly moderate rule of MBS was supposed to usher in a loosening of this draconian approach to the press, but it has been anything but. Detainment of journalists has tripled since 2017 under his regime. So talk by MBS and the Saudi state of Neom being a destination for global media companies is a bloody fiction. It is a brutal opponent of freedom of speech, and a regime that demands absolute devotion to the fragile ego of the crown prince and his circle.