Press in Bahrain: Restricting the Word & Blocking Freedom

On World Press Freedom Day, Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) held a webinar addressing the occasion. The webinar assessed the freedom of press and expression situation in Bahrain, highlighted the restrictions imposed on it, and discussed the possibility of addressing violations and conducting reforms. Ghiwa Faroukh, the advocacy assistant at BCHR, moderated the webinar. 

Ghiwa opened the webinar by giving an overview of the deteriorating situation of press freedom in Bahrain and how the governments in Bahrain and other countries have used the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to impose further restrictions on freedom of expression and the press. Many governments have enacted laws and introduced new legislation to restrict the freedom to disseminate information and expand the range of banned topics on the Internet. She also highlighted the correlation between freedom of the press and the freedom to access information. 

Nazeeha Saeed, a Bahraini journalist, opened her speech by noting that freedom of the press is at its lowest points around the world, especially in the MENA region, including Bahrain. Nazeeha emphasized the importance of press freedom in the democratic system, in which the media can criticize and challenge the government and help formulate public opinion. She pointed to the low ranking of Bahrain on The 2021 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which summed up the press freedom state in the country, where there are no independent media outlets, and if any, they are banned. Since 2017, after the government banned the country’s only independent newspaper, al-Wasat, the press and media landscape are completely dominated by the government. The government imposes strict censorship on the media, whereby all media outlets express one opinion. Nazeeha clarified her point by giving an example of how the media covers the government’s viewpoint, praises it, and completely ignores any public criticism directed at it or any incident that could challenge the government narrative. She pointed to 11 Bahraini photographers and journalists behind bars, where they were convicted and sentenced for taking photos or expressing an opinion that is not in line with that of the government. Nazeeha called for their freedom to continue doing their job in revealing and reporting the truth. 

Sima Watling, from Amnesty International, started by pointing to the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry’s (BICI) findings in 2011 that only one out of seven daily newspapers in Bahrain was independent and that all radio and television broadcast, as well as the Bahrain News Agency, were controlled by the government. Although the government accepted the BICI’s findings and recommendations to relax censorship and allow the opposition greater access to the media, the government has further restricted the freedom of press and expression since. She covered the development of restrictions on freedom of press and expression in Bahrain during the last decade, pointing first to the Cyber Crime Law introduced by the government in 2014, which allowed the prosecution of free expression and complemented the media regulation law. Sima discussed legal articles restricting freedom of expression in Bahrain; for example, Article 70 of the Media Law penalizes content that is considered fake news. She stressed that the prohibition of freedom of information dissemination, based on ambiguous concepts such as fake news and misinformation, is inconsistent with international human rights law. In Bahrain, not only human rights defenders and journalists are targeted by these laws, society at large is under extreme scrutiny for their offline and online activities and interactions. Sima mentioned the banning of al-Wasat newspaper in 2017 and how its closure meant silencing the journalistic voices calling for peaceful change. She also referred to the intimidation campaign and threats carried by the government in 2019 to prosecute those who criticize the government, which evoked an unusual rebuke from Twitter. In 2020, the Bahraini government intensified its crackdown on freedom of expression, citing the pandemic, which indicates a much longer pattern of repression.  Sima maintained that the Bahraini government’s hostile response to the European Parliament resolution regarding the human rights situation in Bahrain adopted in March 2021 reflects its intolerance attitude towards criticism. Finally, Sima criticized major world powers for turning a blind eye to the Bahraini government’s human rights violations and called for rescinding the decision to close al-Wasat, allowing for independent news reporting, and releasing all prisoners of conscience.  

Drewery Dyke, from Salam for Democracy & Human Rights, began his speech by pressing the fact that there is an unfulfilled promise of press freedom in Bahrain. Freedom of the press flourishes in an open and transparent legal and social environment, in which all voices are heard and respected. Drewery pointed out that the legal provisions restricting freedom of the press and expression in Bahraini law are not the only ones that undermine this right, but also the NSO Group software (pegasus spyware) used by the Bahraini government.  The government’s admission of its application of this software to spy on human rights defenders and of the mistakes it has made in this regard could be a turning point. Drewery referred to the low ranking of Bahrain on the Freedom House ranking in terms of freedoms and civil and political rights. He also referred to Bahrain Press Association annual report documenting 111 media infringements, the over-activation of the Cyber Crime Directorate at the Ministry of Interior to restrict freedom of press and expression, 25 arrests, 12 summons for interrogation, and 23 instances of threats and blocking of websites. Despite this reality, Drewery believes that there is an opportunity to make changes in the justice system, where those who are speaking are supported in parliament. He believes that the Crown Prince, theoretically, can make these changes by engaging with journalists and civil society actors to carry out media reforms. These changes can be carried out by building the proper legal and social infrastructure where everyone has a voice. Drewery also made a connection between press freedom and academic freedom, where academic freedom is a building block feature in press freedom. He finished with calling for lifting restrictions on banned media outlets in Bahrain and for everyone to push a little bit more to achieve this. 

Saloua Ghazouani, from Article 19, talked about the trend of silencing journalists and media professionals worldwide and how it has been growing in the past few years. The vital role played by journalists during the Arab spring has played a role in the increased attacks on press freedom by state and non-state actors. With regard to Bahrain, Saloua stressed that not only media outlets are owned by the government or individuals with ties to the government but also it is regulated in contravention of international law and standards. Audiovisual media should be regulated by a broadcasting regulatory body independent from the government that oversees the media and grants licenses to TV channels, radio stations, and printed media, while online media do not need to pass through a licensing system. Saloua also referred to the failure to distinguish between different media types by the Bahraini law, and there is a responsibility overlap between the Ministry of Information Affairs, on the one hand, and the Ministry of Interior and the National security Agency, on the other hand. Moreover, the press law requires all foreign correspondents to get a license annually renewed, which is usually refused for those reporting critically on government policies. She believes that such a system paves the way for political interference in the media. Saloua explained how the government closely monitors all types of media and directly interferes to change or remove undesired journalistic content, leading to cases of self-censorship. She mentioned that Bahrain has failed to fulfill its promises to amend the media law during the last Universal Periodic Review on Bahrain. Saloua is optimistic about the possibility of reform in Bahrain despite the current absence of political will to do so. 

Hussein Al-Sharif, from Maharat Foundation, started by emphasizing that restricting press freedom in Bahrain is part of what is happening in the MENA region. He referenced the RSF global index to explain how freedoms are deteriorating in the region as a whole. For example, Lebanon has recently witnessed an increase in prosecutions for libel and slander charges against civil society activists. In Jordan, there is a misapplication of the Cybercrime Law to harass and prosecute journalists. Besides, decisions by the public prosecution offices in more than one country prohibiting the publication or discussion of cases and incidents to which public opinion has the right to access. In Iraq, there has been an increase in the arrest of journalists and the assassination of civil society activists. Hussein also maintained that conflict zones such as Syria, Libya, and Yemen, are dangerous for journalists, who are subject to murder, assassination and imprisonment, and death sentences. With regard to Bahrain, Hussein pointed to the fact that violations of press freedom have been constant since the 2011 Uprising, and 2015 witnessed an increase in arrests and judicial harassment of journalists and social media activists. He indicated that freedom of the press is an integral part of basic human rights and cannot be discussed in isolation from them. The freedom of the press should be discussed as part of wider violations, such as the prosecution of human rights defenders and activists, arbitrary revocation of nationality, torture and forced confessions, extrajudicial killings, among others. He talked about how the pandemic has been used to restrict freedom of opinion under the pretext of fighting false news, but this issue cannot be addressed with arrests, but rather with organized and comprehensive media awareness campaigns. Finally, Hussein called for respect for press freedom, the right to access information, and end impunity for crimes against journalists.

Fatima Louati, from Mena Media Monitoring, discussed the media coverage of the 2011 Uprising in Bahrain and the Bahraini government’s human rights violations. She maintained that there was a media blackout on the uprising. The blackout was mainly organized by the Bahraini government, which tried to impose a news blackout on the ongoing demonstrations, closure of opposition media, imposing resignation on senior media personalities, harassment of local journalists and foreign correspondents, intimidation of Bahrainis who talk to foreign journalists, and arrests of bloggers. Fatima stressed that the Bahraini government resorted to all possible means to limit the coverage of demonstrations and smear their organizers. She also pointed to the attempts of the government-controlled media to discredit independent media and journalists and accuse them of destabilizing the country. The government also issued a decree prohibiting the publication of any information about an ongoing investigation. Fatima explained how media coverage of the 2011 uprisings and revolutions significantly differed, portraying some of them favorably and ignoring others. For example, the coverage of the 2011 Uprising in Bahrain was minimal in some Algerian newspapers and others did not cover it at all. The coverage of the events in Syria and Egypt was based mainly on dispatches of international news agencies. She stressed that overall media has not given sufficient and excessive coverage of the events that have been taking place in Bahrain in recent years compared to the coverage given to other countries in the region, such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria. Fatima referred to the minimal coverage given to the Bahraini events as biased and misplaced in a sectarian context and portrayed as a result of foreign interference rather than a public aspiration for democracy and respect for human rights. 

Ghiwa wrapped up the webinar by emphasizing the importance of freedom of the press as a necessity not a luxury and calling for abolishing restrictive measures and regulations to press freedom, releasing imprisoned journalists, and investigate all instances of abuse. 

To watch the webinar in full, click here.