The Paris-based rights group, known by its French acronym RSF, said its secretary-general led a four-member delegation to the Gulf kingdom from April 21 to 23, in what it described on Wednesday as an “unprecedented” mission.
The RSF team met the Saudi foreign, justice and media ministers as well as the public prosecutor during the three-day visit to engage directly with the government on the need for urgent press-freedom reforms.
RSF said it kept the trip “confidential” as it hoped Riyadh would pardon the 30 journalists and citizen reporters during the month of Ramadan, which started in May.
The idea was discussed with officials but “the Saudi government did not act”, it added.
The kingdom has come under heightened international criticism over its human rights record after Khashoggi was killed and dismembered by Saudi operatives inside its Istanbul consulate last October.
The CIA and some Western countries allege the killing was ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, which Saudi officials deny.
“The murder of Jamal Khashoggi caused extensive damage to Saudi Arabia’s international image, marking a real low point for a country that has one of the world’s worst press freedom records,” RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire said in a statement.
“A signal of strong political will from the Saudi government is now needed for this damage to begin to be repaired,” she added.
Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney accused world leaders on Wednesday of failing to protect journalists and faulted their “collective shrug” over Khashoggi’s assassination.
Clooney, the British government’s envoy on media freedom, said at a conference on press freedom that “journalists are under attack like never before”, not just while covering wars but for exposing crime and corruption.
“The vast majority of these murders go unpunished,” she said, adding “world leaders responded with little more than a collective shrug” to Khashoggi’s killing.
Among the 30 that RSF wants to be released is Saudi blogger Raif Badawi who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2012 for insulting Islam and has received 50 of 1,000 lashes to which he was sentenced.
Saleh al-Shehi, a columnist for Arabic-language daily al-Watan, was sentenced last year for accusing the royal court of corruption.
The detention and trial of about a dozen women’s rights activists – including journalist Hatoon al-Fassi and bloggers Eman al-Nafjan and Nouf Abdulaziz – on charges that include contacts with foreign media, have sparked outrage.
Foreign journalists, Yemeni Marwan Al-Muraisy and Jordanian Abdelrahman Farhaneh, who were victims of enforced disappearances, are also in jail in Saudi Arabia.
RSF said releasing the journalists was necessary for Riyadh to maintain its chairmanship of the G20 summit, which it is set to hold next year.
The prospect of Prince Mohammed, viewed by many as Saudi Arabia’s de-facto leader, greeting leaders of 19 of the world’s biggest economies as well as the European Union at the next G20 summit in the kingdom has already raised eyebrows.
The communique issued at the end of the G20 summit in Japan last month confirmed that Saudi would host the next summit in 2020. So far no G20 member has announced a boycott.
The assassination of Khashoggi last year further darkened Saudi Arabia’s already bleak press freedom credentials.
For the first time, Saudi Arabia dipped into the bottom 10 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index and is now ranked 172nd out of 180 countries.