UPDATE: Qorvis Communications, which represents the Saudi Government in the United States, emailed reporters Monday night with an statement saying the announcement of restrictions, which was sent from the State Department, is incorrect. The Qorvis email says that the Saudi Ambassador has said journalists can get visas and will be free to go wherever they would like. I am not yet sure the source of the confusion. Will update when I know.
There is no right to a free press in Saudi Arabia. According to the State Department’s 2008 Human Rights report, authorities have the right, under law, to “prevent anything that can lead to disunity, sedition, and separation,” from being published. Foreign press reports are regularly censored, and all public employees are enjoined from “engaging in dialogue with local and foreign media.”
On Tuesday, Barack Obama will depart for Saudi Arabia, with a large contingent of traveling press, myself included, who are generally not subject to such restrictions. But by agreement between the Obama Administration and the Saudi government, the White House press corps will be severely restricted while in the country. Here are the instructions I just received from the U.S. State Department:
The Saudi government is permitting journalists accompanying President Obama entry into the country without a visa or the usual customs procedures. While in Saudi Arabia, therefore, journalists are expressly prohibited from leaving the hotel or engaging in any journalistic activities outside of coverage of the POTUS visit. Those who do so risk arrest and detention by Saudi authorities.