Attacks on the Press 2003: Bahrain

A new press law implemented by the government in October 2002 imposes harsh restrictions on the press, undermining the limited democracy that was introduced in this tiny Persian Gulf archipelago after elections that year.

The law includes an assortment of restrictions and stipulates fines, prison terms, or closure of publications for those that violate them. Newspapers must obtain the approval of the information minister and the Cabinet before being allowed to publish. It is prohibited to criticize the king and Islam, insult the heads of Arab or Islamic countries, incite “sectarian hatred,” or publish “false information” or any news that harms “national unity.” The information minister can keep both local and foreign publications out of the country if they are deemed to break the law, and he can also seek court-ordered closures of newspapers and refer journalists to court for prosecution. Parliament was expected to review the law and possibly make amendments, but lawmakers had not done so by year’s end.

In the meantime, authorities applied the law in at least three cases. In March, prosecutors charged editor Mansour al-Jamri and reporter Hussein Khalaf, both with the independent daily Al-Wasat, with violating a government-imposed media blackout surrounding the arrests of three alleged members of a terrorist cell. The journalists face up to six months in prison and a 1,000 dinar (US$2,650) fine if convicted, according to the paper’s lawyer.

In September, Radhi al-Musawi, a member of the local political group National Democratic Action Society, was briefly detained and charged with defaming a government tourism agency employee. The employee had been accused of corruption in the group’s newsletter, Al-Democrati.

Editor-in-chief Anwar Abdul Rahman and reporter Mariam Ahmed, both of the Arabic daily Akhbar al-Khaleej, were tried on charges of defaming several judges of an Islamic religious court. The case came after their newspaper ran a report in May about a Bahraini woman who staged a hunger strike outside the Justice Ministry after losing custody of her two daughters in the court.

In late October, all three cases were temporarily frozen when Bahrain’s Constitutional Court was asked to rule on the constitutionality of certain articles of the Press Law and the Penal Code, under which the journalists were charged. The court ruled that the journalists can be prosecuted under the laws. All three cases were pending at year’s end.

While most private newspapers are pro-government, the daily Al-Wasat, founded in 2002, has established itself as an independent paper by approaching political stories with a critical eye. In December, the new weekly Al-Ahd hit newsstands but staunchly toed the government line, according to local journalists.

Bahraini newspapers take special care to avoid certain topics, such as criticism of the king, high-level government corruption, divisions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, and aggressive political commentary. Editors told CPJ that direct pressure is common, including phone calls from officials who “advise” them how to cover sensitive stories or ask them not to report on them at all. The information minister, however, described the calls as “meetings for exchanging information, not imposing orders.”

The government remains the country’s sole Internet provider. In the past, authorities have blocked access to a number of political sites–including those of opposition groups–claiming that they incite “sectarianism” and contain “offensive content.” The government has also imposed restrictions on reporters from foreign news organizations. Journalists from Qatar’s Al-Jazeera satellite channel remained barred from working in the country a year after officials prevented the station from covering local elections in May 2002. Authorities had accused Al-Jazeera of harming Bahrain, encouraging violence, and spreading “false news to its viewers.”