In 2002, Bahrainis went to the polls for the first time in three decades. Municipal and parliamentary elections, held in May and October, respectively, were the result of King Hamed Bin Issa al-Khalifa’s much anticipated political reforms, which are aimed at bringing limited democracy to this tiny Persian Gulf archipelago. Although the elections represented a breakthrough for Bahrain and the Gulf region, the press was not entirely free to cover the political process.
In March, the government, which is the country’s sole Internet provider, blocked access to a number of political Internet sites–including those of opposition groups–claiming that they incite “sectarianism” and contain “offensive content.”
Officials barred the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite channel from covering Bahrain’s May 9 local elections, stating that the station “harms Bahrain and Bahrain’s citizens,” “encourages violence,” spreads “false news to its viewers,” and is a medium for “Zionist infiltration in the Gulf region.” Press reports suggested that this hard line came because the network had aired footage from anti-U.S. protests after Israel’s April military offensive into the West Bank.
Bahrain’s press continued to report on the country’s political reforms but remained pro-government. Meanwhile, critics accused local newspapers of ignoring opposition views and practicing self-censorship.
In 2002, the government granted licenses to at least three new papers. One, the daily Al-Wasat, headed by a former opposition figure, began publishing in September. In its first few months, the paper cautiously staked out new terrain in local-affairs coverage.
A new, restrictive press law was introduced in October but was temporarily “frozen” after an outcry from newspapers. The law would have established a host of restrictions and would have given the information minister the power to seek court-ordered closures of newspapers and to refer journalists to courts for criminal prosecution. Officials met with editors to hear their concerns and appeared prepared for a compromise.
Correspondents from the Qatar-based satellite channel Al-Jazeera were barred from Bahrain by Minster of Information Nabil al-Hamr, who claimed that the station “harms Bahrain and Bahrain’s citizens,” “encourages violence,” spreads “false news to its viewers,” and is a medium for “Zionist infiltration in the Gulf region.” Prior to al-Hamr’s announcement, Bahraini authorities had ignored visa and accreditation requests from an Al-Jazeera correspondent who had tried to visit the country from Doha, Qatar• in early May, according to Al-Jazeera staff. Al-Jazeera reporters were supposed to be in Bahrain to cover the country’s May 9 municipal elections.