CPJ calls on Bahrain to end harassment of critical journalists

New York, July 19, 2011The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on Bahrain to end harassment and contrived legal proceedings against critical journalists. Since February, critical journalists have been intimidated, interrogated, smeared in government-owned and -aligned publications, and harassed and sued by government supporters. 

Reem Khalifa, a journalist for the much-harassed Arabic-language daily Al-Wasat and a contributor to other local and international media, has been the target of harassment, intimidation, and a coordinated smear campaign; most recently she was also charged with verbally abusing and physically assaulting a government supporter, according to local news reports.

“Bahrain’s government has a responsibility to protect journalists from those who resort to threats of violence, intimidation, or fabricated criminal charges to influence coverage,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Mohamed Abdel Dayem. “The government should halt the smear campaign in pro-government publications against critical journalists.”

Khalifa was at a press conference held by an Irish delegation of medical, political, and human rights practitioners at a Manama hotel on Thursday evening. The press conference ended prematurely after government supporters and journalists with state media outlets bullied delegation members, as well as independent and critical journalists, according to CNN. When Khalifa tried to interview a member of the delegation she was repeatedly interrupted by a small group of pro-government medical practitioners, who followed and taunted her, according to Khalifa and corroborating testimony by other journalists who were present.  

An argument ensued and Khalifa reached to take a camera away from a woman who was haranguing and filming her. Described by various news outlets as a physician or a nurse, Hind al-Fayez claimed that Khalifa had hit her. CPJ’s review of the video footage and still shots from it indicate that Khalifa did not strike al-Fayez. On Sunday, Khalifa was summoned by the public prosecutor for questioning and was released pending an investigation, according to local news reports. Khalifa denied all accusations and filed a counterclaim for insult and invasion of privacy.

Meanwhile, state media have engaged in a smear campaign against Khalifa, reporting on the incident as if she had committed a crime and had been found guilty of it. Al-Watan, Al-Ayyam, Akhbar al-Khaleej, Al-Bilad¸and the official Bahrain News Agency all described her as an assailant and most attached misleading still shots from the video that insinuate that Khalifa had struck al-Fayez.

Khalifa has frequently been a target of government supporters on social networking sites. In some instances, anonymous individuals wrote entries tracking her whereabouts, indicating where she could be harassed. In one posting, a Twitter user announced when and where Khalifa picks up her children from school, imploring readers to “go say hello.”

Khalifa is not alone; CPJ research reveals that numerous critical journalists have been subjected to the same tactics, including local journalists Maryam al-Shrooqi, Lamees Dhaif, Naziha Saeed, Mazen Mahdi and international journalists Mohammed Fadel and Fredrick Richter.

Al-Shrooqi, who has been subjected to politicized legal proceedings in 2009 for exposing institutional discrimination against Shia and writing about other politically sensitive topics, has faced intimidation in recent months. On July 7, al-Shrooqi, who is also employed by the Ministry of Education, was summoned for interrogation at a school by the director of private education, the journalist said. For three and a half hours, she was aggressively questioned about an alleged allegiance to Shia citizens and about her writings for the daily Al-Wasat, the journalist said.

Thousands of Bahrainis have been demonstrating since February, calling for increased political rights and an end to discrimination against the Shias, who constitute the majority of the population are politically underrepresented.

Aside from the campaign of harassment and intimidation against these critical journalists, since the uprising began, CPJ has documented dozens of cases of journalist detentions in Bahrain; the death in custody of two journalists; lengthy prison terms for critical bloggers; the shutdown of the country’s premier independent daily; arbitrary deportations; government-sponsored billboards and advertisements to smear journalists and activists; and a large number of physical assaults against reporters.