Freedom of the Press
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Media workers and citizen journalists continued to face a highly restrictive media environment in Bahrain during 2013. Since 2011, journalists, photographers, and bloggers covering antigovernment demonstrations have suffered beatings, arrests, and torture. Fewer incidents were reported in 2013, though this suggested that earlier abuses had effectively stifled free expression. The current repression began after widespread, peaceful prodemocracy protests, led mainly by members of the economically and politically disadvantaged Shiite Muslim majority, triggered a violent government response in early 2011, affecting both the protesters and journalists. Despite the government’s pledge to respect human rights in keeping with the recommendations of a November 2011 report on the crackdown by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), authorities in 2013 continued to aggressively curtail media freedom. The domestic press remained subject to self-censorship and persecution, leading to the emergence of citizen journalists who reported on ongoing protests and suffered government reprisals.
Although the constitution guarantees freedom of expression and of the press, the government uses the 2002 Press Law to restrict the rights of the media. The Press Law allows up to five years’ imprisonment for publishing criticism of Islam or the king, inciting actions that undermine state security, or advocating a change in government. Journalists may be fined up to 2,000 dinars ($5,300) for a list of 14 other offenses. Libel, slander, and “divulging secrets” are criminal offenses punishable by terms of no more than two years in prison or a fine of no more than 200 dinars ($530). The criminal defamation laws make it difficult to provide critical coverage of public figures, and they are frequently used to squelch reporting on corruption. The government also uses counterterrorism legislation to curtail the activities of opposition groups and restrict freedom of expression.
A number of prominent journalists, bloggers, and activists convicted in previous years remained behind bars in 2013. In July 2012, writer Nabeel Rajab—head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), the main domestic human rights group—was sentenced to three months in prison for libel after he posted comments on Twitter that accused the prime minister of corruption and called for his resignation. In August 2012, Rajab was sentenced to three years in prison for participating in demonstrations against the government. Abduljalil al-Singace, a blogger and online journalist, was sentenced to life in prison in 2011 on charges of plotting to overthrow the regime after he wrote about the prodemocracy demonstrations. His sentence was upheld on appeal in September 2012. In November of that year, Sayed Yousif al-Muhafdhah, vice president of the BCHR, was arrested while investigating an injury sustained by a bystander when security forces attacked a protest in Duraz. One month earlier, al-Muhafdhah had provided information to the UN Human Rights Council on alleged rights violations by the Bahraini government.
There is no law guaranteeing freedom of information. The Information Affairs Authority (IAA) has the power to censor and prevent the distribution of local and foreign publications, close newspapers through court proceedings, ban books and films, block websites, and prosecute individuals. Under the 2002 Telecommunications Law, the government has considerable authority to regulate internet activity. All websites are required to register with the IAA, and religious and political content is heavily censored. Website administrators are responsible for all content posted on their sites and are subject to the same libel laws as print journalists.
Prior to the protests of 2011, the Bahraini media’s coverage of news and politics was more critical and independent than reporting in most other Gulf countries. Nonetheless, newspapers tended to avoid covering “sensitive” issues such as sectarian tensions, relations with surrounding countries, government corruption, demonstrations, and human rights violations. After the protests erupted in early 2011, media outlets and individual journalists came under increased pressure from the government. Media workers have reported being contacted directly by government representatives and warned not to report on subjects related to the prodemocracy demonstrations or other sensitive issues. Most domestic opposition publications have been shut down, and while some, such as Al-Wasat, were eventually reopened, they remain the targets of legal harassment and public intimidation.
The only alternative space for public expression in Bahrain is online. However, the internet is closely monitored, with the government spending tens of millions of dollars on surveillance and cybersecurity. The arrest of social-media activists in 2013 had a chilling effect on online speech. Various opposition publications have survived on the web but are forced to operate clandestinely from outside the country. The government is a major shareholder in Batelco, Bahrain’s principal telecommunications company, which monitors e-mail and filters internet content by routing traffic through proxy or cache servers. The government blocks thousands of websites under the pretense of protecting citizens from pornography and other offensive material, though many of the filtered sites are reportedly targeted for their politically sensitive content. Internet platforms used for video streaming or for holding online seminars are blocked, as are the sites of human rights groups operating within Bahrain. Because the mainstream press self-censors, bloggers and microbloggers have become more active to fill the void, which in turn draws government scrutiny. In August 2013, government security forces arrested two bloggers and charged them with inciting hatred against the regime. One of the two, Mohammad Hassan Sadef, said he was tortured while in custody. His lawyer posted on social media about his case and was arrested as well.
The authorities continued efforts to control the country’s international image by severely restricting foreign media access during the year. A report from Bahrain Watch in early 2013 counted more than 200 journalists, observers, and aid workers who had been denied entry to Bahrain since protests began in February 2011. Most foreign journalists were denied access to the kingdom to cover the second anniversary of the protests, and those seeking to cover April’s Formula One Grand Prix—Bahrain’s most prominent annual international event—were vetted before admission. Journalists from Sky News, CNN, Reuters, and the Financial Times have been denied entry to cover the race. The government deported three journalists from the British television channel ITV who were covering the Grand Prix after they reported on massive protests before the event.
The government in 2011 used killings, targeted attacks, and harassment to silence the local press, and such tactics continued to be employed in 2013, but they were rarely necessary, as the majority of journalists practiced self-censorship. Even so, dozens of journalists were subjected to harassment and intimidation by security forces during the year. In June, an appeals court upheld the acquittal of a police officer charged with torturing a journalist; the Bahrain correspondent for France 24 alleged that she had been mistreated in custody after being detained as a result of her coverage of the 2011 protests, and had medical reports to support her claim. In July, prominent blogger and journalist Mohammed Hassan Sadef was arrested, as was photographer Hussain Hubail. Sadef was released in October, while Hubail was still in detention at year’s end. Photographer Qassim Zainaldeen was arrested on August 2 ahead of protests planned for August 14, while Ahmed al-Fardan, an award-winning photographer recognized by human rights groups for his stunning pictures of protests, was arrested in December and held without charge through the end of the year.
Bahrain hosts six privately owned daily newspapers, four in Arabic and two in English. While some of these papers are critical of the government, only Al-Wasat is considered truly independent of government influence, though its editors must practice self-censorship. The government does not own any newspapers, but the IAA maintains significant control over private publications. Newspapers rely heavily on advertising revenue to sustain their operations and often self-censor to avoid offending advertisers that do not want their businesses associated with critical reporting. The government maintains a monopoly on broadcast media, allowing the regime to shape public perceptions of the prodemocracy movement and characterize it as sectarian extremism. Private broadcasting licenses are not awarded despite continued interest from media owners. However, there is some room for free expression on television call-in shows. Foreign radio and television broadcasts are generally received without interference, and the majority of households have access to satellite stations; Qatar’s Al-Jazeera and Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya (broadcasting out of the United Arab Emirates) remain Bahraini citizens’ main sources of news. The internet is also widely used as a news and information source; some 90 percent of Bahrain’s population accessed the internet in 2013.