Bahrain gags press as it cracks down on opposition

New York, August 31, 2010Bahrainian prosecutors have banned journalists from reporting on the detentions of dozens of opposition activists, according to news accounts. The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on authorities to lift the censorship order immediately.

Authorities detained Shiite opposition activists in a series of arrests that began on August 13, according to Bloomberg and other news reports. The New York Times reported Thursday that as many as 159 people had been detained, and that later detainees included people not known as activists.

In an order announced on Friday, Public Prosecutor Ali Al-Buainain barred all news outlets from reporting on the crackdown, which comes ahead of October parliamentary elections, The Associated Press reported. The detainees include Abduljalil Alsingace, a blogger who has been critical of the government and who tracks human rights issues for the opposition Haq Movement for Civil Liberties and Democracy.

In a statement published Friday in all Bahraini newspapers, Al-Buainain banned “print, radio, TV, Internet, and other media from publishing or broadcasting any news related to the case” of Alsingace and the other detainees. The statement said “ongoing investigations require secrecy in order to uncover the truth and preserve public order.” Violations are subject to penalties of one year in prison, the statement said. Mansoor Al-Jamri, editor-in-chief of the Arabic-language daily Alwasat, told CPJ that editors received the official order via e-mail and fax.

“The authorities in Bahrain cannot cite operational secrecy as pretext for barring domestic coverage of a crackdown that has already been widely reported by the foreign media,” said Robert Mahoney, deputy director of CPJ. “The people of Bahrain have a right to know if their government is detaining scores of their fellow citizens and the media have a duty to report it. This gag order must be lifted immediately.”

Mohamed Ahmed, Alsingace’s lawyer, told CPJ that the order allows authorities to issue official statements about the case. These official statements can be covered by the press, effectively allowing the government to label the detainees “terrorists” without any balancing, independent coverage, he said.

One journalist faces charges for violating an earlier gag order issued by Bahraini authorities. Reporter Mohamed al-Sawad was charged in July with violating a gag ordered concerning a corruption case against former Minister of State Mansour bin Rajab.