FILE - A woman drives a car on a highway in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as part of a campaign to defy Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving, March 29, 2014. Women's rights activists are among those being detained in Saudi Arabia.
FILE - A woman drives a car on a highway in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as part of a campaign to defy Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving, March 29, 2014. Some female journalists remain in prison for reporting on increased freedoms for women.

June 6 marks two years since Nouf Abdulaziz was imprisoned for reporting on women's rights — an arrest that press freedom advocates say is indicative of how the Saudi government treats the press.

Abdulaziz, a blogger and columnist who contributed to newspapers including Al-Sharq, is one of at least four female journalists jailed in 2018 over their reporting and advocating for increased freedoms for women and constitutional reform in Saudi Arabia, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). 

She is currently on trial for "communicating with foreign entities; recruiting state employees to gather confidential information; providing financial support to hostile entities abroad."

"Why did our homeland become so unwelcoming to us? And why am I considered an enemy and a criminal who threatens its security?" Abdulaziz wrote in a letter that she asked friends to share in the event of her arrest. "I do not know of any crime I committed other than feeling for every wretched and oppressed person in my society."

Press freedom advocates say her continued imprisonment has dangerous implications for press freedom and the rights of women in the Kingdom.

Saudi Arabia has long been viewed as unwelcoming toward independent journalists. In Reporters Without Borders' 2020 Press Freedom Index, the Kingdom ranked 170 out of 180 countries, where No. 1 is the most free.  

FILE - A man walks past a banner showing Saudi King Salman, right, and his Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, outside a mall in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, March 7, 2020.

The media watchdog said the number of journalists detained in the Kingdom has tripled since 2017, the year Mohammed Bin Salman was appointed crown prince. RSF added that the Kingdom keeps a watch on journalists at home and abroad, as the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 shows.

"Saudi Arabia is closed off like no other country I've seen, and they have restricted the flow of information that's really not comparable to most other countries in the region," Justin Shilad, a Middle East and North Africa researcher for the CPJ, told VOA.

Abdulaziz and the other female journalists were arrested amid the debate over a woman's right to drive. Abdulaziz had written about that and other gender and human rights issues on her blog.

The same month as her arrest, Saudi Arabia lifted the driving ban; but Abdulaziz and at least two other journalists — Nassima al-Sada and Samar Badawi — arrested around the same time remain in prison, according to AlQst, a UK-based independent organization that monitors rights abuses in Saudi Arabia.

Karin Karlekar, director of the PEN America Free Expression at Risk programs, said that Abdulaziz's arrest is indicative of the Crown Prince's preferred form of governance.

"He wants it to be seen as, I think, something that's been granted to women by him rather than something that women are pushing for themselves and advocating for themselves," Karlekar told VOA. "It's quite disturbing and [ironic] that women have been granted the very rights that these women in jail were advocating for."

Hana al-Khamri, a former colleague of Abdulaziz, has published several articles about rights abuses in the Kingdom.

"In the eyes of the current leadership, every single organic, bottom-up rights movement is a threat to the authoritarian system," al-Khamri wrote in an opinion piece for Al Jazeera in Sweden about six months after Abdulaziz's arrest. 

The limited amount of government dissent can lead to a lack of understanding for outsiders of life in Saudi Arabia, Shilad said.

"What you lose is a genuine window onto the dynamics of a country that is undergoing profound change, and you also lose the voices of the citizens themselves," he said. "What we see here is a very clear attempt to control the narrative and to control the social dynamics of change."

International rights groups and media have called for Abdulaziz to be released. On June 1, she was listed on the One Free Press Coalition's "10 Most Urgent Press Freedom Cases." 

Abdulaziz is currently on trial with the other two journalists, according to AlQst. The group cited unnamed sources last year as saying she had been tortured in detention.

The public prosecutor denied allegations of torture, Reuters reported.

The Saudi embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment submitted via its web portal.

The women were initially tried under the Specialized Criminal Court, which deals with terrorism cases, but were later moved to the Criminal Court following international pressure, according to AlQst.

When Abdulaziz last appeared in court on March 4, the judge agreed to a request from prosecutors that the session be postponed until further notice, AlQst said.

Karlekar of PEN America believes this is related to the coronavirus pandemic, and she said the prolonged imprisonment sends a message to other Saudis. 

Thumbnail image for COVID-19: The Hit on Press Freedom
COVID-19: The Hit on Press Freedom
As countries move to control information about the pandemic, independent media and journalists face censorship and threats.

"Now they're sort of using COVID as an excuse to indefinitely delay any process or pretense of even trying these cases. And meanwhile, the women are remaining behind bars," she said. "By keeping these women in jail, [the Crown Prince is] sort of sending a signal to anyone else who may be thinking along the same lines that they shouldn't do it."

CPJ's Shilad said that more pressure and awareness is important.

"They are aware of the attention. They're aware of the optics of it in this case in particular," Shilad said. "The more consistent scrutiny that they see of this case, the more that that might result in, at the very least, some more transparency on the proceedings and on Nouf's condition. And hopefully we'll see her eventually released from prison."