King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa's government breaks a promise to allow an international mission to assess free expression in Bahrain. (AP/Hasan Jamali)
King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa’s government breaks a promise to allow an international mission to assess free expression in Bahrain. (AP/Hasan Jamali)

Breaking pledge, Bahrain bars free expression mission

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Reneging on a promise made just weeks earlier, Bahraini authorities have denied visas to representatives of several free expression organizations who planned to travel to the kingdom next week to assess press and free speech conditions. CPJ is among several organizations that have signed a joint letter to Bahrain’s director of human rights organizations condemning the action.  

The free-expression delegation–affiliated with the International Freedom of Expression Exchange–was to include representatives from the Committee to Protect Journalists, Freedom House, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, Index on Censorship, PEN International, and Reporters Without Borders. Freelance journalist Clare Morgana Gillis was also to have participated.

On April 11, Bahrain’s Ministry of Human Rights and Social Development granted the group  permission to conduct a mission assessing freedom of expression in the country. CPJ had also received a letter from the ministry in January inviting our organization to visit the kingdom.

On April 30, just days before our planned departure, the ministry reversed its decision, claiming that new guidelines allowed only one organization per week to visit the country, thus precluding the group from going forward.  

Over the past year, Bahrain has made a habit of denying visas to international journalists, human rights defenders, and observers–most recently to reporters seeking to cover the restive political backdrop to last month’s Formula One Grand Prix motor racing event.  

Domestic repression has been severe. CPJ research shows that in the past year, independent and opposition journalists in Bahrain have endured the worst conditions since King al-Khalifa assumed the throne in 1999. CPJ has documented three journalist deaths, including a shooting death last month; dozens of detentions; arbitrary deportations; government-sponsored billboards and advertisements smearing journalists; and numerous physical assaults.

Despite its ongoing efforts to silence independent observers, the government has publicly asserted an interest in openness. On May 2, in an address marking World Press Freedom Day, King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa lauded the blossoming of a free media, human rights, and reforms in Bahrain. He made a point of saying foreign media distorts news coverage of events in the Kingdom.