The government uses a number of tools to hinder independent reporting, chief among them a controversial press law imposed in October 2002. The law, criticized by Bahraini journalists and political activists, allows journalists to be fined and jailed and permits officials to close publications by court order. The law bans criticism of Islam and King Hamed Bin Issa al-Khalifa; “insults” to the heads of Arab or Islamic countries; incitement to “sectarian hatred”; and the publication of news that harms “national unity.”
In early 2004, the upper house of the National Assembly proposed amendments to soften some of the law’s harshest provisions. Among other steps, the amendments would rescind most prison penalties and limit the scope of potential press infractions. The government proposed its own, less-liberal version, but the assembly’s lower house had taken no action on either proposal by year’s end.
Bahraini officials have frequently used the law to prosecute journalists, censor foreign newspapers, and ban coverage of sensitive political issues. In July, the prosecutor general barred the media from reporting the arrests of several suspects in an alleged terror plot in Bahrain. Information Minister Nabil al-Hamr claimed that the move would “protect the legal interests of the suspects.” With the prosecutor general threatening swift action against violators, Bahraini newspapers complied. A year earlier, officials took the daily newspaper Al-Wasat (The Center) to court for violating a similar ban.
The government, again using the Press Law, censored a foreign publication. The Ministry of Information barred distribution of Mushahid al-Siyassi (The Political Observer), a pro-Qatari, London-based magazine, at least twice in 2004 for what local journalists said was the magazine’s critical coverage of political reforms in the kingdom, as well as a story on foreigners seeking Bahraini citizenship.
Perhaps the most significant gain for the press in recent years was the licensing of Al-Wasat, the country’s most independent daily newspaper, which was launched 2002. The newspaper, edited by a former opposition figure, continued to set itself apart from the country’s staunchly pro-government dailies in 2004 by undertaking investigations that exposed official corruption and financial mismanagement. Among the paper’s targets were the Ministry of Electricity and the Ministry of Information.
Newspaper coverage typically follows the official government line, but some Bahraini journalists say that Al-Wasat‘s aggressive reporting has inspired the country’s other privately run dailies to strengthen their coverage. Al-Mithaq (The Covenant), a private daily that began publishing in May, has been described as an improvement from other pro-government papers, although its reporting is still heavily circumscribed. Self-censorship continues to plague most Bahraini journalists, who avoid criticism of the king, the ruling family, the government, high-level government corruption, and divisions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. Officials frequently contact editors and reporters to attempt to influence coverage. Broadcast media remain state-controlled.
In a move likely to chill freedom of expression, the government closed the Bahrain Center for Human Rights in September and later sentenced its vice president to one year in prison after he criticized the prime minister for human rights abuses and Bahrain’s economic woes.
Journalists also express fears about public reaction when covering sensitive social and political issues. “People assume that it’s only pressure from governments that restricts the Gulf press, but from our experience, we’ve found that the local society in each country is a bigger censor than the government ever was, especially when people do not want the press to tackle certain issues,” Al-Wasat Editor-in-Chief Mansour al-Jamri said.