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Saudi news media are showing greater interest in discussing human rights issues.  This was made clear at a recent seminar on reporting human rights attended by Saudi journalists in Riyadh.  The seminar, organised by the London Middle East Institute and hosted by the British embassy, aimed to raise awareness among Saudi news reporters of human rights issues and their place in the international news agenda.

The programme was held over five days in the embassy's training room.  The Saudi participants were joined by two from Bahrain, a reporter with the newly launched Al Waqt newspaper and a representative of the Bahrain Human Rights Association.  The seminar was led by Centre for Conflict Resolution Journalism director Barry Lowe and Kamel Labidi, a consultant for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The focus of the course was human rights issues in the Saudi context.  Discussion embraced a broad a range of subjects including the rights of women and the status of women in Saudi society.  The women members of the group - three newspaper journalists - pointed out the inequalities faced by Saudi women in public life, access to jobs and careers and in politics.  Participants agreed that there had been some recent progress in improving the status of women.  But popular attitudes, and the influence on those attitudes of the religious hierarchy, would ensure that further change came slowly.  They pointed out that King Abdullah had recently stated no Saudi laws discriminated against women.  But tradition and the power of the religious police meant that women continued to face severe restrictions on the social activities they could engage in.

The rights of ethnic minorities and migrant workers - enshrined in treaties such as the 1990 International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and their Families - proved a particularly contentious issue.  There are about six million non-Saudi nations living in Saudi Arabia, most of whom came on fixed term employment contracts.  Participants initially argued there was no problem with the treatment of these migrant workers.  But on examination of the topic they admitted that many Saudis harboured negative stereotypes and hostile prejudices towards migrant workers.   The group looked at a number of case studies involving migrant workers and their treatment by the Saudi criminal justice system.  Migrant workers are executed in far greater numbers, in proportion to their population, than Saudi nationals.  Migrant women who accuse their employers of rape are often jailed and later deported when they lodge their complaints with police.

The seminar also studied international treaties on the rights of children - such as the Vienna Declaration of 1993 - and Saudi Arabia's record for complying with these undertakings.  The participants said there was strong interest among Saudi journalists in reporting children's issues.  One participant Mohammad Al Milfy, a reporter for Al Watan, produced a feature story he had written on the plight of Yemeni children smuggled into Saudi Arabia to work for organised begging syndicates.  Saudi journalists had also begun taking an interest in child sexual abuses cases.  Saudi children were not protected by law from abuse by their parents.  In the past cases of child abuse had gone unreported because of a taboo on dealing with what were regarded as private family matters.  But a number of high profile cases had recently achieved prominent coverage in a number of Saudi newspapers.

Freedom of expression and freedom of the press are issues close to the hearts of Saudi journalists.  The participants felt there had been major gains in these areas over recent years.  Saudi news outlets were able to report on topics that were considered taboo up until a few years ago.  But there were still "red lines" that Saudi journalists could not cross.  The problem was being aware of where the red lines were drawn.  As official attitudes towards restricting the press gradually softened, journalist often found themselves taking risks to extend the boundaries of what they could report on.  The art of survival in Saudi journalism was staying just inside the red lines while constantly testing their permeability.

The seminar ended on agreement that human rights would continue to grow in importance to Saudi media outlets as they responded to the growing public need for a broader news agenda.