Major political reforms augured well for press freedom in the tiny Persian Gulf country of Bahrain, which was plagued by social tension and political unrest for part of the 1990s. In a mid-February referendum, voters overwhelmingly approved Emir Sheikh Hamed Bin Issa al-Khalifa’s national charter, which seeks to transform the country into a constitutional monarchy with an elected Parliament and other reforms.
Many hope that these changes, expected to be implemented in 2004, will lead to greater press freedom. In November, the Ministry of Information said it had received several applications for new publications. Plans to unveil a new Press Law are under review.
Despite the spirit of reform, authorities still targeted journalists. On November 11, Bahraini journalist Hafedh al-Shaikh Saleh was charged with “harming national unity” in a suit brought by the Ministry of Information in response to unspecified articles that Saleh had published in the Bahraini daily Akhbar al-Khaleej. However, the journalist believed that the prosecution was actually triggered by an article he wrote for a Lebanese paper criticizing Bahrain’s foreign policy toward the United States. The ministry also banned Saleh from writing for Akhbar al-Khaleej. Saleh later sued the ministry over the ban, and in January 2002 he won the case.
Hafedh al-Shaikh Saleh, Akhbar al-Khaleej
Saleh, a writer for the Bahraini daily Akhbar al-Khaleej and a contributor to several Arab papers, faced charges of “harming national unity.” The charges, filed by the Ministry of Information, were ostensibly based on unspecified articles that Saleh had published in Akhbar al-Khaleej. The journalist was released after posting bail of 50 dinars (US$133).
Saleh told CPJ that he suspects the charges actually stemmed from a November 4 article, published in the Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star, in which he criticized Bahrain’s foreign policy toward the United States.
Officials reportedly told Akhbar al Khaleej not to publish Saleh’s articles. According to the Bahrain Human Rights Society, the Information Ministry announced that it intended to contact other Gulf governments in an attempt to prevent regional media from publishing Saleh’s work. Saleh appeared in court again after the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which ended around December 15.
The court ruled in Saleh’s favor. In early January, state prosecutors dropped their appeal against the ruling.