Police check journalist IDs outside the Formula One races on Sunday. Authorities have restricted and suppressed journalists in the run-up to the races. (AP/Hassan Ammar)
Police check journalist IDs outside the Formula One races on Sunday. Authorities have restricted and suppressed journalists in the run-up to the races. (AP/Hassan Ammar)

Bahrain cracks down on news around Formula One races

New York, April 23, 2012–Bahraini authorities, intent on suppressing coverage of the restive political conditions that were a backdrop to the Formula One Grand Prix in Manama on Sunday, arrested at least seven international journalists who were seeking to report on anti-government demonstrations, according to news reports.

“Bahraini authorities may have wanted to put a positive veneer on the Grand Prix, but their heavy-handed actions in shutting down international news coverage reflect a government determined to silence critical viewpoints,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “Until government leaders halt their severe, ongoing crackdown on news coverage, their talk of reform cannot be taken seriously.”

At least seven international journalists have been detained in Bahrain for covering political unrest in the past five days. British broadcaster Channel 4 news reporter Jonathan Miller, cameraman Joe Sheffer, and producer Dave Fuller were arrested on Sunday while filming a demonstration in a Shiite suburb of Manama, news reports said. The news team had been denied journalist visas and were working without accreditation, the broadcaster reported. They were released after six hours of questioning and deported to the U.K. later that day, according to news reports. Miller wrote on his Twitter account that the authorities had confiscated their equipment and refused to return it. In an interview with Channel 4, Miller also said that their driver, Ali al-A’ali, had been beaten in front of the crew and taken into separate custody. Al-A’ali was later released, news reports said.

Colin Freeman, a correspondent for the London-based The Sunday Telegraph, and an unidentified Dutch reporter were also arrested on Sunday while filming a demonstration, The Telegraph reported. Mohammed Hassan, a stringer and fixer for international news outlets, and an unidentified driver were detained as well, reports said. The four were released after four hours in custody, the newspaper said. In addition, two unidentified Japanese journalists who worked for the Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun were arrested in a village outside Manama for filming a demonstration, and were released two hours later, news reports said.

Hassan had been attacked and detained two days earlier. On Friday night, Bahraini riot police hit him with a stun grenade and beat and kicked him as he worked with journalists affiliated with British broadcaster ITN in the village of Al-Bilad al-Qadim, news reports said. Hassan was taken to a local hospital with extensive bleeding and bruising, local journalists said. He was released Saturday after being accused of attending an illegal gathering, his lawyer told CPJ. He was not charged, the lawyer said.

On Sunday, King Hamad ibn Isa al-Khalifa pledged his commitment to reform in Bahrain: “I want to make clear my personal commitment to reform and reconciliation in our great country. The door is always open for sincere dialogue among all our people,” he was quoted in news reports as saying. The king has frequently promised reform consistent with the recommendations made by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry’s November report in response to the government’s crackdown on protests in March 2011. The Formula One event was cancelled last year due to political unrest.

The government appeared determined to narrowly restrict coverage to the racing and block reporters who were seeking a broader view. It denied at least seven international journalists entry into the country before the event, according to news reports. The journalists, who were attempting to cover civil unrest and widespread demonstrations, worked for international news outlets that included Reuters, The Associated Press, CNN, The Financial Times, and The Times of London, the reports said.

Bahraini courts have also ruled against two journalists in significant cases in the past week. On Thursday, a court fined journalist Reem Khalifa 600 Bahraini dinars (US$1,600) for allegedly attacking two government supporters, news reports said. CPJ’s review of the video footage and still shots of the incident found the claim to be without merit. A local journalist told CPJ that the court refused to hear defense witnesses and refused a request to examine evidence that the defense said showed Khalifa as the victim rather than the assailant. Khalifa, who has appealed the court’s decision, has been a regular target of harassment by state agents, including a sustained smear campaign in pro-government publications and on social media websites, CPJ research shows.

On Wednesday, Bahrain’s High Criminal Court sent the case of a female police officer who had allegedly tortured France24 journalist Nazeeha Saeed back to the prosecutor’s office because it failed to follow the proper procedure in referring the case to the court, local press reported. The high court’s decision followed a lower criminal court’s decision in March to not hear the case because it did not fall “within its jurisdiction,” according to the reports. Saeed, who was detained in May 2011 after reporting on widespread demonstrations and abusive practices by police and prison authorities, said she was verbally abused and tortured while in custody, news reports said.