Freedom of the Press
Press Freedom Score (0 = best, 100 = worst)
Legal Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Political Environment(0 = best, 40 = worst)
Economic Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
The government continues to restrict media reporting, including the internet, despite laws providing for freedom of the press and of expression. In spite of the government’s claims to further the democratic process, media restrictions were tightened in 2006. Articles 23 and 24 of Bahrain’s constitution guarantee freedom of expression and of the press. However, a suspended 2002 Press Law (No. 47) continues to enable the prosecution of journalists based on 17 categories of offenses. Offenses against Islam, the king, and “the unity of the people,” as well as acts of inciting division or sectarianism, are punishable by six months to five years in prison. According to the Bahrain Journalists Association, 30 legal cases were brought against journalists in 2006 by individuals alleging defamation or insult. Conflicting conservative and liberal efforts to reform the 2002 Press Law continued in 2006, with two emergency sessions for debate called in April. Despite government commitments to a more democratic society, three laws were passed in 2006 that have the potential to undermine the rights to free expression. On July 20, amendments to the Association Law (No. 18/1973) were ratified that forbade any speech or discussion infringing on “public order or morals.” A counterterrorism bill was signed into law on August 12 that contains excessively broad definitions of terrorism and terrorist acts and criminalizes advocating terrorist acts as well as the possession of documents promoting the same. An amendment to the penal code (Act No. 65/2006) in September made it a crime to publish the names or pictures of accused persons before a court verdict and without the permission of the public prosecutor.
News regarding international issues, local economic and commercial issues, and opposition politics is generally less restricted than news on issues concerning the royal family, the Saudi royal family, national security, and judges. Two reporters from local papers Al-Mithak and Al-Wasat received anonymous telephone threats in October for writing about the “Bandargate” scandal that centered on a report written by Sudanese-born British citizen Salah al-Bandar regarding alleged election fraud and involved members of the royal family and politicians. Despite governmental censorship and self-censorship among journalists, many local and foreign media outlets are able to cover a diversity of issues without restriction. Nevertheless, some subjects of local concern continue to be untouchable.
Print media are privately owned, and there are nearly 100 Bahraini newspapers and journals in circulation. A number of new Arabic daily newspapers have opened since the reforms of 2002, including Al-Watan, which debuted in December 2005, and Al-Waqt, which entered the market in 2006. Although they are privately owned, the government retains the right to control publishing policies, appoint the papers’ officials, and dismiss journalists. All local radio and television stations are state run; however, satellite television is widely available, providing access to international broadcasts. The country’s first private radio station, which began broadcasting from Manama in October 2005, was shut down in 2006 by the authorities, who alleged irregularities.
While the internet has provided journalists in Bahrain with greater freedom to report and access to more diverse and critical forms of information, it has also served as yet another medium for the government to censor and regulate. The only internet provider is the government-owned Batelco, which reported that 135,000 persons (about 21 percent of the population) used its service. Batelco prohibits user access to antigovernment, anti-Islamic, and human rights websites. In August, a government decree was issued to block access to Google Earth, Google Video, and Google Maps, but this was lifted days later following pressure from civil society. The media block on the “Bandargate” scandal extended beyond traditional media outlets to the internet, where blogs were forbidden to discuss the issue. In October, many websites and blogs were banned in the month leading up to the elections. On November 16, Dr. Mohammed Saeed Al-Sahlawi and Husain Abdulaziz Al-Hebshi were arrested for possessing publications downloaded from the internet calling for the boycott of the November elections. The two activists were charged with promoting an illegal change of the state and spreading false news and rumors that would disrupt public security and damage public interest. The two remained in prison at the end of 2006. By year’s end, almost two dozen websites had been blocked.