Freedom of the Press
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Despite constitutional protections guaranteeing freedom of expression and of the press, the government continued to enforce the 2002 Press Law to restrict the rights of the media. Bahrain’s Press Law contains 17 categories of offenses and allows for up to five years’ imprisonment for publishing material criticizing Islam or the king, inciting actions that undermine state security, or advocating for change in the government. Journalists may be fined up to 2,000 dinars (US$5,300) for an additional 14 offenses. The press can also be prosecuted under the penal code. On May 28, the upper house of parliament passed a revised Press Law that would decriminalize press offenses, protect the confidentiality of sources, ensure access to official information, and end criminal responsibility for publishers. Nevertheless, the draft law still needs to be passed by the lower house, an elected body heavily influenced by conservative religious perspectives, which rejected a similar bill three years prior.
In February, the editor in chief of both Akhbar Al-Khaleej and the Gulf Daily News wrote an editorial accusing ‘Abd al-Hadi Khawaja, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, of conspiracy and treason based on his participation in a seminar sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute. While Bahrain’s prime minister commended this particular criticism, journalists who criticize government officials more often receive libel convictions or censorship instead of such praise. A total of 47 complaints were filed against journalists and publishing houses in the courts in 2007, many filed by private individuals. In one case, Dr. Mohammed Saeed Al-Sahlawi and Hussain Abdul Aziz Al Hebshi, who were arrested in November 2006 for possessing 1,500 leaflets of literature deemed to be “subversive,” were sentenced at the end of January to one year and six months in prison, respectively. However, they were pardoned by the king in February. Separately, a media ‘blackout’ was issued against longtime women’s rights activist Ghada Jamsheer, who in April sent a letter to the king criticizing the effectiveness of the Supreme Council for Women chaired by the king’s wife. According to Article 19, Jamsheer was not published or referenced in any print or broadcast media after April, a move that was in violation of Bahrain’s international legal obligations.
Journalists who covered contentious topics like protests were occasionally subject to assault as well as libel allegations. Three journalists from the newspapers Al-Ayam, Al-Waqt, and Al-Wasat were physically assaulted and had their mobile phones confiscated by members of the Bahraini security forces on December 25 while trying to cover a peaceful protest outside the Office of the Public Prosecutor. The protest was being held by family members of those who had been arrested for participating in demonstrations over the unnecessarily violent dispersal of a December 17 protest. Similarly, two journalists with Al-Alam television were arrested by police, interrogated, and had their equipment stolen as they planned to cover a protest outside a United Nations building.
The Ministry of Information may censor and prevent the distribution of local and foreign publications, close newspapers through court proceedings, ban books and films, block websites, and prosecute individuals. Bahrain’s conservative citizens also act as independent censors, reporting to the authorities material considered to be indecent or against religious principles. A continued ban on any media discussion of the 2006 “Bandargate” scandal was reaffirmed by the High Criminal Court in November. The “Al-Bandar report,” written by Sudanese-born British citizen Salah Al-Bandar, used leaked government documents to allege election fraud and the involvement of members of the royal family and high-level politicians in fomenting anti-Shia sectarian strife. On April 19, Al-Bandar, who was deported in 2006, was convicted in absentia and sentenced to four years in prison and a 100 dinar fine. Numerous websites that had been shut down in 2006 for mentioning the report remained blocked and a number of journalists and human rights activists were detained and interrogated in 2007 for writing about the scandal.
Despite all of these threats and restrictions, the Bahraini press still offers a more diverse and critical perspective of news and politics than most other Gulf countries. Nonetheless, newspapers tend to avoid reporting on “sensitive” issues such as sectarian tensions, relations with surrounding Gulf countries, governmental corruption, demonstrations, and human rights violations. There is also a dearth of critical coverage of local issues such as land and demographic distribution as well as problems confronting the large immigrant worker population. The lack of any private news agency serves to exacerbate this situation.
There are six privately owned daily newspapers, four in Arabic and two in English, several of which are critical of the government. While there are no state-owned papers, the government has a monopoly on all broadcast media. The country’s first private radio station, Sawt al-Ghad, launched in 2005, but the authorities shut it down in 2006, alleging irregularities. A few international radio stations are allowed to broadcast, and foreign satellite television provides the public with their main source of news.
Bahrain was the highest-ranked Arab country on the International Telecommunication Union’s Digital Opportunity Index, which measures progress in relation to infrastructure, opportunity, and use of digital media. Of Bahrain’s population, 22.2 percent currently use the internet, reflecting an almost 300 percent growth rate since 2000. In addition to the 2002 Telecommunications Law, which imposes civil and criminal penalties for violations, the term electronic media was inserted into the 2002 Press Law, allowing the government to regulate this sector under vague legislation. Website administrators may be prosecuted under the same libel laws as journalists and are responsible for all content posted on their sites. On October 21, three journalists were convicted and fined for defaming the director of an elder-care center in an article published in the online newspaper Al-Saheefa, one of Bahrain’s numerous banned websites. In February, the municipalities and agricultural affairs minister filed a similar criminal libel complaint against blogger Mahmood al-Yousif, who had criticized the minister’s praise of the government’s handling of earlier flooding; following a campaign by local press freedom groups, the minister dropped the case in May 2007. The government is a major shareholder in Batelco, the country’s principal telecommunications company. Batelco monitors e-mail and filters internet content by routing internet activity through proxy/cache servers. All websites are required to register with the Information Ministry. Bahrain has a very active online community with about 200 blogs; however, religious and political content is heavily censored. At least 22 local and international websites were blocked during the year, including the website of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, and the International Freedom of Expression Exchange.