Watchdog group calls on Saudi Arabia to release local journalist

DUBAI (Reuters) - The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has called on Saudi Arabia to release a local journalist who was reportedly arrested this week after criticizing the government.

Saudi activists and media reported that Saleh al-Shehi, a columnist for Arabic-language daily al-Watan, was detained on Wednesday over various articles and television appearances, including one in which he accused the royal court of corruption in distributing land.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has launched reforms over the past two years to foster economic diversity and cultural openness, ordered the arrest of more than 200 people, including princes, ministers and billionaires, last year. He said he was going after corruption but critics saw the move as a consolidation of power.

Resistance to his economic agenda and assertive foreign policy has been treated harshly, according to civil liberties monitors, who say freedom of expression is increasingly constrained.

“Despite promises of reform and moderation from Saudi Arabia’s emerging leadership, it is clear from Saleh al-Shehi’s arrest that repression as usual continues,” Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator, said in a statement late on Friday.

“Saudi authorities must release al-Shehi immediately, and Saudi leaders should ensure that the press is able to freely report on all issues of public interest.”

The government’s Center for International Communication did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Reuters could not independently confirm that Shehi had been arrested.

Reporting by Dubai Newsroom; Editing by Mark Potter