Media in Bahrain: Constrained & a Propaganda Tool for the Government

Media overview in Bahrain

Between 1939 and 1940, Bahrain witnessed the opening of its first newspaper, Jaridat al-Bahrain, and radio station, Bahrain Broadcasting Station. Both closed down by the end of the Second World War. More newspapers opened in the 1950s, some of which were critical of British rule and the al-Khalifa family. Since there was a fear of the role of the press in supporting social movements, especially anti-imperialist and pro-democratic movements in Bahrain, all the new newspapers had been closed by 1956. The government exercised firm control over any publishing and broadcasting, and until independence, all publications needed British approval first.[1]

Between 1976 and 1989, 12 daily, weekly, and monthly newspapers and magazines were created when media reforms were introduced in the government’s attempts to liberalize the political system post-independence. In 1973, the first National Assembly was elected in Bahrain, and television broadcasting began. “That showed that autocracy was loosening politically and, consequently, in the media sphere.”[2] During the 1990s Uprising, the government held a tight grip on newspapers and television followed by a brief relaxation of rules around media outlets with the adoption of the National Action Charter of Bahrain in 2001. Strict restrictions and censorship have intensified again after the 2011 Uprising.[3] Overall, after independence, the media scene has fluctuated in response to political developments; however, at all times, the media has remained under the government’s control.

Today, all radio and television broadcasts in Bahrain are state-controlled by the Bahrain Radio and Television Corporation (BRTC). The BRTC is owned by the government and operates under the Ministry of Information Affairs. Its Board of Directors is appointed by the Cabinet. The BRTC manages and regulates all domestic channels. Private broadcasting licenses are not granted. The government even controls what satellite channels are available inside Bahrain by jamming unwanted signals, like what happened with the opposition Lualua TV in 2011. After only four hours of broadcasting from London in July 2011 after it had been denied licensing several times in Bahrain, its satellite signal experienced a disruption. Moreover, its online content has also been continuously blocked for viewers.[4]

The Bahrain News Agency, the major national news broadcaster, is state-owned. Six out of the seven daily newspapers are pro-government and are owned by figures closely associated with the Bahraini government: Akhbar al-Khaleej; al-Ayam; al-Bilad; al-Watan; the Bahrain Tribune; the Gulf Daily News. The only independent daily newspaper, al-Wasat, was indefinitely suspended in 2017. The government firmly controls all media outlets and publications through the Ministry of Information Affairs, whose head is appointed by a royal decree.

After the adoption of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) recommendations, the government carried out a “media reform program,” creating the High Commission for Media and Communication (HCMC) to draw up the general policy for media and communication in the country. It has great powers over media regulation and content. The HCMC suggests rules and constraints, sets standards for media censorship, renders opinions on draft laws related to media, and receives complaints on media content. The HCMC’s independence is questionable, as its members are appointed and dismissed by a royal decree.[5]

The government controls both on and offline content. It compels internet service providers to block and filter online content. The Telecommunication Regulatory Authority (TRA), the governmental body regulating the telecommunication sector in Bahrain, ordered all telecommunications companies to employ a centralized TRA-managed system for blocking websites in 2016.[6] As online media played a significant role in the 2011 Uprising, the government has ramped up online censorship since, regularly blocking independent Bahraini online news outlets and platforms critical of the government. The majority of websites blocked are related to politics. It has to be noted that “the decision-making process and government policies behind the blocking of websites are not transparent.”[7]

Although social media platforms are accessible in Bahrain, the government applies heavy censorship to their use. Many Bahraini people have resorted to social media for an alternative point of view and to express themselves after 2011. However, the government applies repressive measures to control social media content through summonses for interrogation, prosecutions, and threats. The Public Prosecution Office (PPO) and the Cybercrime Directorate at the Ministry of Interior play a leading role in carrying out these measures. Independent human rights organizations have documented hundreds of such cases in the last few years. This environment of intimidation has led to widespread self-censorship. People are less willing to express critical opinions of the government and its policies out of fear of the repercussions. Criticism of the government rarely goes unpunished in Bahrain.

Legal framework for suppressing freedom of expression

Freedom of expression is guaranteed in Bahrain’s Constitution of 2002, “provided that the fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine are not infringed, the unity of the people is not prejudiced, and discord or sectarianism is not aroused.”[8] The Constitution places limitations on the right to freedom of expression, using vague terms, and many legislations in Bahrain follow suit.

The authorities’ crackdown on free speech has relied on restrictive laws and regulations. The government invokes legal provisions with poorly-defined and vague-worded terms to pursue dissent. While the government promotes Bahrain as the beacon for tolerance and freedoms in the Gulf region, the whole Bahraini legal system is designed to restrict and punish dissenting voices. Mainly, the Bahraini authorities rely on the Bahrain Penal Code, the Press Law, and the Law of Information Technology Crimes.

Bahrain Penal Code stipulates dozens of legal provisions restricting the exercise of the right to freedom of expression and sets forth harsh penalties for violators.

  • Article 133 penalizes up to 10 years in prison the deliberate dissemination in wartime of false or malicious news, statements, or rumors to cause damage to military preparations.
  • Article 134 penalizes releasing abroad false or malicious news to undermine financial confidence in the State, affecting its prestige or position.
  • Article 160 criminalizes calling for “the overthrow or changing the political, social or economic system of the State where the use of force, threat or any other illegitimate method is noticed.”
  • Article 161 makes liable to punishment anyone who “possesses, either personally or through others or maintains publications or literature containing the promotion or dissemination of anything” that is provided for in Article 160.
  • Article 165 makes liable to punishment “any person who incites with the use of one of the publication methods to develop hatred of the ruling regime or show contempt towards it.”
  • Articles 166 and 167 criminalize calling for the resignation of the Amir, Prime Minister, or a minister or his deputy through “violence, threat or any other illegitimate method.”
  • Article 168 penalizes the act of spreading “false or malicious news” disruptive to public security.
  • Article 214 makes liable to imprisonment “any person who offends the Amir of the country and the national flag emblem.”
  • Article 215 makes liable to imprisonment any person “who offends in public a foreign country or an international organization based in the State of Bahrain or its president or representative,” and “such organization’s flag or official emblem.”
  • Article 216 makes liable to imprisonment any person who “offends by any method of expression the National Assembly, or other constitutional institutions, the army, law courts, authorities or government agencies.”
  • Article 222 makes liable to imprisonment any person “who offends with the use of signs, saying, writing or by any other method a civil servant or officer entrusted with a public service during or by reason of carrying out the duties of his office or service.”
  • Article 290 makes liable to imprisonment any person who deliberately causes inconvenience to others by misusing telecommunications appliances.[9]

Many of these provisions are ambiguous and overly broad, allowing for political exploitation and for courts to interpret these provisions discretionarily to convict government opponents. Moreover, the term “illegitimate method” is problematic because it can be participation in unauthorized peaceful assemblies or joining unlicensed peaceful political groups. These provisions have been regularly invoked to quell any legitimate criticism of the government and imposed on individuals exercising their rights under international law.

The Press Law of 2002, still in effect at the time of writing, significantly narrows the space for freedom of expression and places many restrictions on journalistic work, whether in terms of licensing or media content. Articles 19 and 20 are regularly invoked to shut down media outlets for “publishing materials that undermine the system of government in the country or its official religion, or breach morals, or attack religions in a way that disturbs the public peace.” The law prevents any publications issued abroad from entering the country on the pretext of preserving “public order, morals, religions, or for other considerations related to the public interest.” Chapter VI of the law holds journalists criminally responsible for “crimes that occur through publication in newspapers.” Articles 68, 69, and 70 are used to crush dissent by criminalizing criticism of the King, incitement to overthrow the government, and insulting governmental bodies. They also penalize spreading false news that may disrupt public order and harm national interests, as well as criticizing the heads of countries that exchange diplomatic representation with Bahrain.[10]

The Press Law empowers the Minister of Information and the court to suspend or close down media outlets for publishing any materials that contravene the law provisions. Under Article 78, the court upon the order of the PPO may suspend a newspaper during an investigation or trial before a final court decision is issued. A newspaper can also be suspended or closed down “if it is proven that it serves the interests of a foreign state or body, or that its policy conflicts with the national interest of the Kingdom of Bahrain.” Reporters for foreign newspapers and news agencies need a one-year renewable license that can be revoked by a decision of the Minister of Information (Articles 88 and 89), while there is no mechanism in place to challenge the Minister’s decision.

In April 2021, the Cabinet referred a new draft Press, Publishing, and Printing Law to the Parliament for review. The new law steered condemnation from independent observers. Although the new law includes positive amendments, it stipulates various restrictions on press freedoms. It does not stipulate prison sentences for journalists for the offenses set forth in the law: only fines, but it allows them to be penalized under the Penal Code. It includes many vaguely-worded articles that substantially restrict freedom of expression. Under the law, the right to express an opinion is guaranteed “without prejudice to the foundations of the Islamic faith, the King, and the unity of the people, and in a manner that does not provoke discord or sectarianism.” News outlets are prohibited from publishing content that “contradicts the national interests” and “incites hatred or violence,” while no clear definitions were provided for these terms.  Under the law, journalists are penalized for “insulting the King,” “insulting the state’s religion,” “undermining the regime,” “inciting hatred against a sect,” as well as criticizing a ruler or head of an Arab or Islamic government and publishing false news. The law also allows the Ministry of Information to close down media outlets and block websites.[11]

Most importantly, this law requires the editor-in-chief of any media outlet in Bahrain to “not be deprived of exercising political rights.” It also stipulates that “anyone who owns or co-owns a newspaper or a website shall not be deprived of exercising political rights or has been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor.” This discriminatory condition excludes many of those who have been sentenced for political reasons, as well as members of dissolved political parties, who are prohibited from running for parliamentary elections and leadership positions in civil society organizations, from owning or managing a media outlet in Bahrain.

In 2016, the government further expanded press restrictions by issuing Resolution No. 68 of 2016 regulating the use of electronic media by newspapers. The Resolution requires newspapers to obtain a license from the Mass Media Directorate in order to publish content on websites or social media platforms. The license is granted for only one year, and the Resolution does not establish a mechanism to appeal against a refusal decision. Resolution No. 68 prohibits live streaming and posting videos longer than 120 seconds. It requires that digital content be “a part of the printed content and a reflection of it, and it deals with the same topic,” excessively controlling media content. The Resolution does not even set criteria for granting these licenses, leaving it to the discretion of the officials at the Mass Media Directorate.[12]

The HCMC, created in response to the BICI recommendations to liberalize media in Bahrain and relax censorship, introduced more restrictive regulations instead of addressing those already in place. In December 2015, the Vice President of the HCMC issued a resolution to further censor media content. Resolution No. 1 of 2015 sets new standards for all media outlets under which they should operate, including “respect for the system of government in Bahrain,” “refrain from broadcasting and publishing any information, news, or other materials that would lead to disturbing the Kingdom’s relations with other countries,” “not to offend leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)” and other friendly states, and “not to employ or support, directly or indirectly, at home and abroad, any person or any media outlet which has orientations that harm the Kingdom, any of the GCC countries,” or other friendly states.[13] According to this resolution, violating any of these standards could lead to the closure of the media outlet.[14]

The Law of Information Technology Crimes of 2014 does not criminalize any digital content related to freedom of expression, as content-related offenses in this law are only related to pornography. However, the government body responsible for implementing it, the Cybercrime Directorate at the Ministry of Interior, summons and refers for prosecution those publishing content related to freedom of expression. Article 11 states that the provisions of this law shall apply to “crimes stipulated in any other law if they are committed using the information technology system,” making the Cybercrime Directorate the main governmental body responsible for suppressing freedom of expression on the internet.[15]

These restrictive laws not only suppress freedom of expression but foster a culture of self-censorship. The existing Bahraini media only disseminate news and information favorable to the government, praise the government’s accomplishments, and adopt the government’s narrative, making them a propaganda tool. Legitimate criticism of the government is almost absent, eliminating any opportunity for self-reflection and development. These laws and regulations do not allow for healthy needed discussions to emerge, thus closing off any room for far-reaching sustainable solutions to the internal turmoil.

Repressive measures  

Through a wide range of repressive measures, the government has maintained a tight grip on media and information. It has utilized restrictive laws, technology, and the judicial system to help silence critical journalists, bloggers, and media workers.

In its attempt to control public opinion and crush dissent, the Bahraini government completely controls mainstream media in the country by monitoring content and blocking stories on undesired matters. “Some members of the media reported government officials contacted editors directly and told them to stop publishing articles on certain subjects.”[16] There is a severe lack of editorial diversity in Bahrain, where all newspapers follow one editorial line imposed by the government.  Opposing views are not allowed to be expressed.

The government suspended the only independent newspaper al-Wasat in June 2017 indefinitely. The decision for suspension came after al-Wasat published an opinion article on June 4 supporting a rural uprising in Morocco. The current indefinite suspension is the fourth for the paper since its foundation in 2002.[17] In February 2015, al-Arab TV was closed permanently after hours of interviewing al-Wefaq senior member Khalil al-Marzooq.[18] Before its dissolution, al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, the main opposition party, had officially requested to open a satellite channel many times, but its request remained unanswered.[19] Currently, the opposition does not have a mainstream media outlet in Bahrain and is not allowed proper access to the existing ones.

As more people resorted to online media post-2011, the government intensified censorship over the internet by blocking unwanted political content and critical online platforms. In 2011, Reporters Without Borders reported that the Information Affair Authority (IAA) blocked and shut down more than 1000 websites, including human rights websites, blogs, and online forums.[20] In 2013, Freedom House’ the Freedom on the Net Report indicated that “39 percent of all sites reportedly blocked in Bahrain are related to politics.”[21] After the adoption of the centralized TRA-managed system for blocking websites in 2016, it has become easier for the government to filter online content. The list of blocked websites is constantly growing with no transparent blocking criteria, and websites rarely get unblocked.

The government, through the TRA, has absolute powers to block websites without any judicial oversight, leading to arbitrary blocking of any undesired online content by mainly the Ministry of Information Affairs and the Ministry of Interior. For example, in December 2018, the website of independent Bahraini news outlet Awal Online was blocked a month after its launch in the wake of critical reporting on a government minister. In 2020, the Ministry of Interior blocked websites for “publishing fraudulent information about efforts to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.” After Bahrain cut diplomatic ties with Qatar in 2017, many Qatari media outlets were blocked, including al-Jazeera, al-Sharq, and al-Raya, and many of them were unblocked after restoring diplomatic ties in 2021. Telegram’s website, popular among the political opposition and human rights community, was also blocked in 2016 and later became accessible. Among the websites that have been blocked in Bahrain are the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), Lualua TV, Bahrain Mirror, the website of al-Wefaq, and several live streaming services.[22] Arbitrary blocking and heavy censorship have led many online media to emigrate from Bahrain. A report from November 2015 indicated that more than 85 percent of Bahraini websites are hosted outside of the country, despite excellent infrastructure.[23]

The use of social media is also restricted. Major platforms are accessible but the content is highly censored. Summons for interrogation and prosecution for social media posts are widespread in Bahrain. Between February 2011 and the end of 2020, Bahrain Press Association documented over 1700 infringements of media freedoms and freedom of expression in public and virtual spheres in Bahrain, the majority of which are related to online activities.[24] The Ministry of Interior constantly threatens social media users with prosecution for “misuse of social media.” In 2019, the Anti-Cybercrime at the Ministry of Interior threatened legal action against people who follow “inciting accounts that promote sedition” and circulate their posts. In May 2021, the Bahraini Parliament was “set to come up with tough new rules for misusing electronic data and social media platforms.” One of the laws presented by MPs would see “anyone found guilty of insulting others on social media facing fines of up to 20,000 BD and a maximum jail sentence of three years.”[25]

Freedom House report “Freedom on the Net 2020” found that “internet users exercise a high degree of self-censorship,” and that “self-censorship on Twitter has become acute, with users expressing increasing fear of facing prosecution for discussion of anything beyond sports, lifestyle topics, and political views in line with those of the government.”[26]

Spreading the government’s own version of the truth has required silencing critical journalists and citizen-journalists and punishing dissidents in the media through arbitrary arrests and judicial prosecutions, imposing travel bans, revocation of citizenship, not granting work accreditation for Bahraini journalists working for international media outlets, and making hard for foreign journalists to get a press visa to visit Bahrain.

According to Reporters Without Borders, since 2016, “Bahraini journalists working for international media have had problems renewing their accreditation. For foreign journalists, getting a press visa to visit Bahrain is very complicated.” Article 88 of the current press law requires correspondents of foreign media outlets to obtain a one-year renewable license from the Ministry of Information Affairs to work in Bahrain. As the law does not set clear standards for granting these licenses, the Ministry of Information Affairs can block any application without a justification. In 2017, the Ministry of Information Affairs refused to grant accreditation to several international media correspondents without justification, including the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, France 24, and Monte Carlo Doualiya. It also initiated judicial procedures against those who continued to work without a license.[27]

A travel ban is another repressive measure imposed by the Bahraini government on dissidents, including journalists. The travel ban is both a means of reprisal against critics and a tool to control information by preventing activists, human rights defenders, and journalists from engaging with UN human rights mechanisms and other international bodies and organizations. The government has intensified the use of travel bans since 2016. In most cases, activists were informed of the travel ban while attempting to leave the country, and no information was provided to them on the reason for the ban or which government body imposed it. Many Bahraini journalists were arbitrarily banned from travel in the last few years.[28]

The Bahraini government has also resorted to citizenship revocation in retaliation for dissent. Since 2011, at least seven journalists and citizen-journalists have been deprived of their citizenship. Of those stripped of their citizenship: award-winning photographer Ahmed al-Mousawi, journalist Mahmoud al-Jaziri, and blogger Ali al-Maaraj – all serving jail terms in Bahrain Jau prison – besides four journalists in exile. Ali Abdel Imam, the founder of the Bahrain Online news website, Ali al-dairy, the founder and editor of the Bahrain Mirror newspaper, al-Nabaa TV presenter Abbas Busafwan, and the blogger Hussein Yousef were all stripped of their nationality by the Ministry of Interior on 31 January 2015.[29] In 2019, three of the seven restored their citizenship by a royal decree.

Since 2011, dozens of journalists, bloggers, photographers, and media workers have been prosecuted and imprisoned for covering demonstrations and anti-government activities or voicing dissent. Currently, at least five press workers remain in prison.

  • Journalist Mahmoud al-Jaziri

Mahmoud is a journalist who worked for al-Wasat newspaper. He was arrested on 28 December 2015 from his home without an arrest warrant. He was charged with “supporting terrorism, inciting hatred of the regime, having contacts with a foreign country, and seeking to overthrow the regime by joining the al-Wafaa Islamic Party, the banned political group, and the February 14 Youth Movement which had organized anti-government protests.” On 30 October 2017, a Bahraini court sentenced Mahmoud to 15 years in prison and revoked his citizenship. In April 2020, al-Jaziri was moved to solitary confinement for at least four days after he released a recording from Jau Prison reporting on the facility’s lack of containment measures for Covid-19.[30]

  • Blogger Ali Maaraj

Ali is an online activist, news provider, and blogger. He was previously arrested on 6 January 2014 and sentenced to 30 months in prison on 8 April 2014 on charges of “misusing information technology” and “insulting the King.”[31] After a month of his release on 5 April 2016, he was arrested again without a warrant at Manama airport on 5 June. He was convicted on terrorism charges although “no hard evidence was brought against him” and sentenced to life in prison and his citizenship was revoked on 30 October 2017.

  • Photographer Ahmed al-Mousawi

Ahmed is an award-winning photographer. He was arrested on 10 February 2014 in a house raid and subjected to enforced disappearance. His family reported his torture at the Criminal Investigation Directorate (CID). He was also denied access to legal counsel. He was brought to trial ten months later on 24 December 2014, charged with joining a terrorist group. On 22 November 2015, a first instance court sentenced al-Mousawi to 10 years in prison and ordered his nationality be revoked.[32]

  • Photographer Hassan Mohammad Qambar

Hassan is a photographer who freelanced for international media outlets. He was previously jailed from April 2011 to February 2012 on charges of vandalism and spreading false news. He resumed working as a photojournalist after his release, which prompted the National Security Agency (NSA) to pursue him again. The NSA raided his home 60 times during the ensuing six years until he was finally arrested on 12 June 2018. He was charged with “burning tires,” “causing damage to an electricity tower,” “rioting and causing chaos” and “association with a terror organization.” However, the interrogations to which he was subjected were all about his work as a photojournalist.[33] He was sentenced to 55 years in prison on a wide range of charges.[34]

  • Blogger and academic Abduljalil al-Singace

Dr. Abduljalil al-Singace is an academic, blogger, political activist, and human rights defender. On 22 June 2011, the National Safety Court, a military court, sentenced Dr. al-Singace to life imprisonment on terrorism-related charges for his role in the 2011 uprising in Bahrain. He is one of a group called “Bahrain 13” consisting of prominent opposition figures and human rights defenders, seven of whom were handed down life terms for allegedly “setting up terror groups to topple the royal regime and change the constitution.” The National Safety Court of Appeals, also a military court, confirmed his conviction and upheld the sentence on 29 September 2011. Dr. al-Singace is arbitrarily detained. He was tortured in public security custody, and no proper investigation has been conducted by the authorities into his torture allegations, nor have any measures been taken to provide redress. He started a hunger strike in prison in July 2021 in protest against ill-treatment, especially the unjustified confiscation of his book on 9 April 2021, which continues today.[35]

In 2021, there were reports about the Bahraini government’s use of advanced technologies to spy on activists. The Citizen Lab identified nine Bahraini activists whose phones were hacked with NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware between June 2020 and February 2021, including three members of the National Democratic Labor Action Society (Waad), three members of BCHR, two exiled Bahraini activists, and one member of al-Wefaq National Islamic Society. With some of these activists, zero-click hacks were used, meaning an attack is unpreventable even with the most security-conscious phone users.[36] Later, the Citizen Lab revealed that their forensic analysis confirmed that the phones of three other individuals inside Bahrain were hacked in 2021 with NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware: a human rights lawyer, a psychiatrist, and a journalist.[37] There have been reports of 20 Bahraini officials, who are close to the government, being targeted by the Pegasus spyware.[38]  The use of such spyware by repressive governments is a threat to press freedom and freedom of expression in general. It enables attacks on independent media, and it is a huge breach of the right to privacy.

Strict censorship of media content through dozens of restrictive legal provisions, judicial procedures and the imposition of a single editorial line on all newspapers under penalty of closure have forced journalists to engage in self-censorship or leave the country and work abroad. Currently, there is no place for independent journalists in the Bahraini media.

Restrictions on access to information

Restrictions on journalistic work are not limited to the persecution of critical journalists but also restrictions on the right to access information. The right of access to information falls within the general framework of freedom of expression. Bahrain has not introduced access to information regulations yet.

On 17 November 2009, the Bahraini House of Representatives approved a draft law on access to information, which was referred to the Shura Council for approval. The law was discussed by the appointed Shura Council in May 2010, where its enactment was postponed indefinitely. The Shura Council decided that a law “protecting state information and documents” should be introduced prior to adopting a law codifying the right of access to information. Indeed, Law No. 16 of 2014 was adopted regarding the protection of state information and documents, while access to information law has yet to be approved.[39]

Article 3 of Law No. 16 of 2014 stipulates three levels of classification: “top secret,” “secret,” and “restricted.” The law sets forth escalating penalties for disclosing these documents and information according to the degree of their confidentiality. However, it does not provide any criteria for how to classify them into the three levels and leaves it to the discretion of the concerned government bodies under the same article. The law also stipulates that documents and information not classified within the three mentioned levels are “regular” and “may not be disclosed to anyone other than those concerned,” according to Article 4.[40]

Law No. 16 of 2014 imposes significant restrictions on the right of access to information, especially with the absence of a law explicitly protecting this right. By giving government agencies the power to classify official documents and information without clear criteria, the law grants the government the right to disclose only the information it wishes to disclose and subjects citizens and journalists’ enjoyment of the right of access to information to the discretion and authority of the government. This is contrary to the fundamental premise of this right that “all information held by governments and governmental institutions is in principle public and may only be withheld if there are legitimate reasons, such as privacy and security, for not disclosing it.” Even the “regular” documents and information can only be disclosed to “those concerned.” These provisions raise questions about the purpose of this law, rendering the adoption of any access to information law almost meaningless.

The right of access to information is further constrained by the overall restrictions on the right to freedom of expression. With no proper access to information, journalists cannot play their role as public watchdogs, pointing out corruption, scrutinizing government decisions, and initiating needed public debates.

Incitement to hatred and intolerance

During the 2011 Uprising, “much of [media] material contained derogatory language and inflammatory coverage of events, and some may have been defamatory,” according to the BICI findings. A decade later, not much has changed in how the mainstream media in Bahrain portray dissidents and represent the opposition although the government has carried out many reforms in response to the BICI recommendations.

The government-backed Bahraini Journalists Association issued a press charter in January 2012. The press charter prohibits “alignment with racist calls, or that involve contempt or hatred of religions, or that promote discrimination or contempt for the opinion or belief of a sect of society.”[41] However, mainstream media in Bahrain allow attacks, contempt, and defamation of anti-government figures. There have been accusations of treason and systematic attacks on dissidents, including human rights defenders, as well as negative stereotyping of the opposition in the media during the last ten years. While the government has been diligent in pursuing its critics, it turned a blind eye to those defaming the opposition and inciting hatred toward dissidents. Republishing a critical international human rights report on Bahrain invokes accusations of treason in Bahraini papers.[42] Waging a defamation campaign against participants in UN human rights events goes unchecked.[43] Calling for the purification of society from members of dissolved political societies does not lead to investigations nor dismissal[44] nor attacking Shia Arabs and call them agents of a foreign country,[45] nor promoting discrimination against a sect and contempt for their culture and beliefs.[46]

The media discourse in Bahrain contains a great deal of incitement of hatred towards the opposition and accusations of treason.[47] As there is a close correlation between religious and political identities in Bahrain, there has been constant anti-Shia commentary in media publications.[48] Overall, the media scene only reflects a governmental policy of discrimination against Shia citizens. In 2021, the Freedom House report indicated that “Shiite clerics and community leaders often face harassment, interrogation, prosecution, and imprisonment.”[49] In August 2016, UN experts voiced concern about “the systematic harassment of the Shia population by the authorities in Bahrain.” They stated that “the intensified wave of arrests, detentions, summons, interrogations and criminal charges brought against numerous Shia religious clerics and singers, human rights defenders and peaceful dissidents is having a chilling effect on fundamental human rights,” stressing that “Shias are clearly being targeted on the basis of their religion.”[50]

The Bahrain Penal Code criminalizes inciting others “to hate or show contempt for a certain faction.”[51] However, the government has been selective in applying such provisions, using them mainly to crush dissent. The US Department of State report on the implementation of the BICI recommendations in 2016 pointed to the double standards adopted by the government in dealing with religious incitement citing the case of a Bahraini journalist found not guilty for making anti-Shia comments, as they were “of a political nature,” while several opposition figures remain imprisoned on incitement-related charges.[52] In the case of lawyer Abdullah al-Shamlawi, he was convicted on the charges of “inciting hatred of a religious sect” and “deliberately causing inconvenience to others by using telecommunication devices” in June 2020. The second charge stemmed from an incorrect comment on social media in 2018, on which he was interrogated at the time by the PPO and faced no charges. It was reported that other people who posted the same misinformation were not charged, indicating “an apparent determination to punish al-Shamlawi under any available pretext.”[53] The data since 2011 clearly indicates that the incitement-related legal provisions are invoked disproportionately against opponents of the government, emptying them of their content.


As media play a prominent role in shaping public opinion and popular mobilization, it is crucial for authoritarian governments to control media production and consumption. In Bahrain, the government dominated the media scene with tight control of media outlets’ licensing, dozens of restrictive laws on content, and a wide range of repressive measures against critical voices. Moreover, the government has been selective in applying existing restrictive laws by allowing mainstream media to use inflammatory and sectarian rhetoric against the opposition. Depicting dissidents and opposition figures as “traitors,” “foreign agents,” and “threats to national unity” in Bahraini mainstream media aims at promoting the government’s narrative, vilifying its opponents, and stirring public opinion against them. This indicates that the Bahraini media currently act as a propaganda tool for the government. At the same time, under various pretexts, freedom of expression is crushed, where dissenting voices are suppressed in alternative media through intimidation campaigns, threats, judicial procedures, and imprisonment. The tight grip on traditional and alternative media stifled the free press and led most independent journalists to step aside or leave the country. The new press law – in Parliament for review – added up to a bleak outlook for press freedom. Drastic reforms are needed, and till then, no press freedom in Bahrain.

[1][1] Marc Owen Jones, “Arab Media Systems”, Open Book Publishers, 2021, pp. 148-151, accessible at

[2] Ibid., p. 150.

[3] Ibid., pp. 150-151.

[4] IFEX, “Bahraini TV station disconnected from its audience”, 8 March 2013, available at

[5] Decree No. 47 of 2013 establishing the High Commission for Media and Communication, available at

[6] Freedom House, “Freedom on the Net 2021 –Bahrain”, accessible at

[7] Ibid.

[8] Bahrain’s Constitution of 2002, Article 23, accessible at

[9] The Bahrain Penal Code of 1976, available at

[10] Decree-Law No. 47 of 2002 Regulating the Press, Printing, and Publishing, available at

[11] See the full text of the draft law in Akhbar Al Khaleej newspaper at the following link,%D8%AD%D8%B6%D8%A7%20%D8%B9%D9%84%D9%89%20%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%83%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%87%D9%8A%D8%A9%20%D8%A3%D9%88%20%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D9%86%D9%81

[12] Resolution No. 68 of 2016 regulating the use of electronic media by newspapers, available at  

[13] Resolution No. 1 of 2015, Article 1, available at

[14] Ibid., Article 3.

[15] Law No. 60 of 2014 concerning information technology crimes, available at

[16] US State Department report on human rights practices in Bahrain 2021, available at

[17] Human Rights Watch, “Bahrain: Only Independent Newspaper Shut Down”, 18 June 2017, available at

[18] The US Department of State Report to the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, June 2016, p. 11, available at

[19] Bahrain Press Association, “Al-Arab” Channel Experience in the light of TV Media in Bahrain”, available at

[20] Reporters Without Borders, “Internet Enemies 2011: Countries Under Surveillance – Bahrain”, 2011, accessible at

[21] Freedom House, “Freedom on the Net 2013 –Bahrain”, 2013, accessible at,FREEHOU,,BHR,52663b015,0.html

[22] Freedom House, “Freedom on the Net 2021 –Bahrain”.

[23] Freedom House, “Freedom on the Net 2017 –Bahrain”, accessible at

[24] Bahrain Press Association, “Bahrain 2020: Freedom in Quarantine”, 2020, available at

[25] ZAWAYA, “Tough rules on way for social media abuse in Bahrain”, 26 May 2021, available at

[26] Freedom House, “Freedom on the Net 2020 – Bahrain”, available at

[27] Committee to Protect Journalists, 4 May 2017, available at

[28] Committee to Protect Journalists, 1 May 2017, available at

[29] Reporters Without Borders, 14 February 2018, available at

[30] Committee to Protect Journalists, “Mahmoud al-Jaziri”, available at

[31] Reporters Without Borders, “Bahrain urged to release 12 detained news providers”, 21 August 2014, available at

[32] ADHRB, 13 April 2018, available at

[33] Reporters Without Borders, “Bahraini photographer sentenced to more than 100 years in prison”, 12 December 2018, available at

[34] ADHRB, 13 July 2018, available at

[35] BCHR, 3 December 2021, available at

[36] The Citizen Lab, “From Pearl to Pegasus: Bahraini Government Hacks Activists with NSO Group Zero-Click iPhone Exploits”, 24 August 2021, available at

[37] The Citizen Lab, “PEARL 2 PEGASUS: Bahraini activists hacked with Pegasus just days after a report confirming other victims”, 18 February 2022, available at

[38] The Guardian, “‘Most harmful thing’ – how spyware is stifling human rights in Bahrain”, 18 February 2022, available at

[39] Al-Bilad local newspaper, 29 January 2016, available at

[40] Law No. 16 of 2014 concerning the Protection of State Information and Documents, available at

[41] Bahraini Journalists Association, “Press Honor Code”, accessible at

[42] Al-Bilad local newspaper, 5 May 2016, available at

[43] Al-Watan local newspaper, 23 September 2012, available at

[44] Al-Bilad local newspaper, 23 May 2018, available at

[45] Al-Watan local newspaper, 22 May 2018, available at 

[46] Al-Watan local newspaper, 22 April 2018, available at

[47] Al-Ayam local newspaper, 22 January 2016, available at

[48] The US Department of State 2015 International Religious Freedom Report, accessible at

[49] Freedom House, “Freedom in the World 2021”.

[50] OHCHR, “UN rights experts urge Bahrain to end the persecution of Shias”, 16 August 2016, available at

[51] Bahrain Penal Code, Articles 172, and 309.

[52] The US Department of State Report to the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, June 2016, p. 13, available at

[53] Human Rights Watch, “Bahrain: Lawyers Prosecuted on Speech Charges”, 9 September 2020, available at