These tips were provided by a researcher on domestic workers in Saudi Arabia.
The media environment in Saudi Arabia is repressive and freedom of speech and expression is limited. The country has repeatedly been under heavy criticism from Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain, among others.
In Saudi Basic Law, there is no mention of freedom of the press, speech or expression. While the media and publications law guarantees freedom of expression, it works within the limits of Sharia law. The country does not have a freedom of information law, although a draft law has been debated in the Shura Council.
Bloggers are required to register with the Ministry of Information, and criticizing the ruling family is forbidden, as is criticizing Islam. Journalists operating in the country must be aware that upsetting powerful players — including the ruling family or those close to them, influential businessmen and religious scholars — will put them in the crosshairs of authorities. Despite this, on a daily basis local journalists criticize the government. However, this criticism is pursued in a cautious, watered down or indirect manner. Self-censorship is heavily practiced.
There are many restrictions on foreign journalists, who are required to apply for registration with the Ministry of Interior. While there are significant number of foreign journalists, they are easily cowed by the restrictive policies in place.
Getting Government Information
Journalists do not have a legal right to request documents or information, and not all information is officially documented by the government. The piece of information you might be looking for might only be obtained orally. However, you can always negotiate access to information since existing laws on obtaining information is loose, non-existent or subject to negotiation. Utilize these ambiguities.
Here are some other helpful suggestions:
- Be cautious about volunteering your professional identity when seeking information from potential sources.
- Some government agencies allow you to contact them online such as the Ministry of Labor. Others, such as the National Society for Human Rights, do not. General background information can be obtained from the website of ministries, as almost all of them have an online presence.
- You might need to go to the physical location of a government agency to obtain information, such as the Labor Office, the Center of Housemaids Affairs, the Police Station or the Passport Directorate. But never go alone. Take as many people as possible with you.
- Another way to contact government officials is through social media. You can reach a ministry support team or a program within a specific ministry, for example @Musaned. However, remember those support teams and communication officers work for the ministry. Twitter, Youtube and Snapchat are extremely common in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia tops the world in Snapchat usage and it achieves the highest YouTube watch time per capita of any country. Many government officials have public profiles; contact them through those channels.
- Embassies of other countries may be more open to giving you information, and be willing to connect you with their social workers, labor attaches or community groups. Community groups in particular will lead you to many stories, but be careful to protect your sources.
If all your attempts fail and you believe an official is withholding information that might implicate others, you might want to expose their refusal to reveal the information. As long as you are not trying to implicate someone from the ruling family, you most likely will get your refusal story published. If you do not have access to publishing, utilize the extensive popularity of social media to tell your story.
Using Laws to Your Advantage
Saudi Arabia has several laws that regulate labor, the justice system and related areas. During your reporting, find out what laws have been breached and what avenues of justice and redress you can seek either for the migrant worker or for yourself.
Here are some areas of law that might help:
- Labor Law. The Saudi labor law covers all workers, excluding domestic workers, in the country, whether foreign or Saudi. It offers a number of protections. For example, the labor law requires the sponsor to give his or her worker an Iqama, or residence permit. Does the sponsor for the migrant worker case you are investigating have one?
- Domestic labor law. This law, while not ideal, gives domestic labor — drivers, housemaids, gardeners, cooks, etc. — several rights. For example, a domestic worker should be given, by law, a day of rest every week. Find out what rights are given (or taken) from a domestic work.
- Human Persons trafficking law. The law states that the trafficked persons have the right to medical and psychological care, shelter and security protection. In other words, they should not be deported until they are taken care of.
- Domestic Violence law. This law is not perfect, but does extend to domestic workers
Labor in the Media
Ministry of Labor
The Ministry of Labor is subject to much of the media criticism that is directed at the government. For example, this article in Arabic criticizes the Ministry of Labor policies toward domestic workers. Labor ministers have reportedly acted on righting wrongs on behalf of migrant workers after a video or a news item was shared with them on social media.
Regular and diverse media debate takes place on topics such as recruitment offices, Kafala system, domestic workers rights, migrant workers rights, migrant workers crimes and human trafficking. Also noticeable is the country’s English news media, which are more favorable to migrants than their Arabic counterparts. No Arabic news outlet would publish an article like this or this.
Follow Up Your Reporting
Some Saudi media outlets end articles about migrant workers’ abuse, suicide, incidents or implication in crimes with one line: “The police investigation are ongoing.”
This attitude comes from the media’s lack of follow up. But there is a great chance here to find out more. Here are some suggestions:
- Talk to the police to get an update on the investigation.
- Speak to the workers, if possible.
- Talk to the sponsor, and get their side of the story.
- Talk to the embassy of the worker. They are almost always involved in some way in these cases.
- If someone is blocking your access to information, talk about that publicly.
There is also the issue of attitudes toward migrant workers. Because most low-income migrant workers do not follow Saudi media, your audience is the Saudi people. Here are some tips to consider:
- Understand what people think of migrant workers, even if it is stereotypical or wrong. For example, figure out the trouble they go through to secure a driver or a domestic worker.
- Try to find a way to deliver your message without upsetting your audience — remember this is an audience that can be extremely resistant to criticism or self-criticism.
- Make sure you’re giving migrant workers a voice. Many media pieces focus on the impact of migrant policies or proposed reforms on Saudi society. Instead, you could try telling the story from a migrant worker’s perspective.