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Gulf Guide - Saudi Arabia
Gulf Guide - Saudi Arabia

Illustration: Marcelle Louw for GIJN

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Chapter 14 – Reporting Guide for Saudi Arabia

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These tips were provided by a researcher on domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. 

Media Environment

The media environment in Saudi Arabia is repressive and freedom of speech and expression is limited. The country has repeatedly received heavy criticism from Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Americans for Democracy, and Human Rights in Bahrain, among others. Reporters Sans Frontières recently ranked the country 170th in its 2021 World Press Freedom Index, among the lowest 10 nations across the globe and the lowest among the GCC states.

Article 39 of Saudi Basic Law regulates all forms of expression including mass media and gives authorities broad powers to prevent and prohibit the publishing of materials that undermine the “security of the State or its public relations.” The country does not have a freedom of information law, although a draft law has been debated in the Shura Council.

Saudi Arabia World Press Freedom Index Ranking

Saudi Arabia was ranked 170th in Reporter Sans Frontières’ 2021 World Press Freedom Index, among the worst in the world. Image: Screenshot

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, or 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 a significant number of foreign journalists, they are easily cowed by the restrictive policies in place.

Finding and Pursuing Stories

Government Sources

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 verbally.  However, you can always negotiate access to information since existing laws on obtaining information are ambiguous, non-existent, or subject to negotiation. Take advantage of these ambiguities.

Here are some other helpful suggestions:

    • Be cautious about volunteering your professional identity when seeking information from potential sources.
    • Consult the websites of the Saudi government Open Data Unit or the General Authority of Statistics. Both websites contain the latest up-to-date indices, statistics, census results.
    • Some government agencies allow you to contact them online such as the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development. 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. When visiting such places, you can use a fixer who is bilingual and knows the system, or at the least keep your colleagues or family informed of where you are going and how long it may take to return. Ensure they have copies of your ID documents.
    • 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 popular in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia tops the world in Snapchat usage per capita and it achieves the highest YouTube watch time per capita of any country. Many government officials have public profiles; contact them through those channels.
    • Facebook groups run by migrant workers are vital spaces to look for stories and get workers testimonies about government policies or a specific issue.
    • 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.
International and National Organizations

Saudi Arabia has recently launched a national referral mechanism and the government is working with international and national organizations such as the IOM and the Saudi Human Rights Commission in developing its anti-trafficking policies. It could be worth reaching out to these organizations for input on the situation of human trafficking in the kingdom. One can also find important information in the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report.

Blocked

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 information-blocking story published. If you do not have access to publishing, utilize the extensive popularity of social media to tell your story.

Legal Avenues to Explore

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. 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 laborers — 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 afforded to (or taken) from a domestic worker.
  • Human Persons trafficking law. The law states that trafficked persons have the right to medical and psychological care, shelter, and security protection. In other words, they should not be deported until after they receive proper care.

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 Al-Jazirah article (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.

Labor-related Topics

Regular and diverse media debate takes place on topics such as recruitment offices, the Kafala system, domestic workers’ rights, migrant workers’ rights, migrant workers’ crimes, and human trafficking. Also notable is the country’s English news media, which is more favorable to migrants than their Arabic counterparts.  Recently, local Arabic media outlets have adapted their terminologies to comply with directives of the Saudi government in banning the use of derogatory terms such as “servants” to refer to domestic workers.

General Reporting Tips

Some Saudi media outlets end articles about migrant workers’ abuse, suicide, incidents, or implication in crimes with one line: “The police investigation is ongoing.”

This convention reveals how the media often leaves the rest of the story without following up on what happened. 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 recruitment agencies, for cases involving domestic workers.
  • Talk to the sponsor, and get their side of the story.
  • Talk to the embassy of the worker’s home country. It is almost always involved in some way in these cases.
  • If someone is blocking your access to information, talk about that publicly.
  • Saudi Arabia is the largest migrant-receiving country in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Therefore, origin country NGOs and community groups focus a lot on migrants in the kingdom. They are a great resource to both gather testimonies and to (relatively) safely connect to workers in the country.

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 citizens think of migrant workers, even if it is stereotypical or wrong. For example, gain a thorough understanding of 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.

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