Outlets banned in Bahrain and Syria over allegations of false news

New York, August 7, 2015–The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on authorities in Bahrain and the Kurdish-run territory of Syria to rescind two separate decisions this week to suspend the operations of three news outlets that fill a critical journalistic space in their respective areas. The three outlets have been accused of spreading false news and disunity, according to news reports.

The official Bahrain News Agency reported on Thursday that the government’s Information Affairs Authority had suspended the independent newspaper Al-Wasat until further notice, accusing the outlet of “repeated dissemination of information that affects national unity and the Kingdom’s relationship with other countries.”

The Information Affairs Authority did not respond to CPJ’s emailed request for comment to clarify which articles led to the paper’s suspension. Al-Wasat, the country’s only independent newspaper, which often includes the perspective of the political opposition, has repeatedly faced pressure from the government and its supporters in recent years. In 2011, the paper’s co-founder, Karim Fakhrawi, died in state custody after being arrested amid a government’s crackdown on independent reporting. Days before he was arrested, the government accused Al-Wasat of “deliberate news fabrication and falsification.”

More recently, the paper was warned in connection with an August 1 column that the Information Affairs Authority said contained false information which violated the country’s press law. The article, called “And They Will Never Approve of You,” said that Bahrain’s mainstream opposition does not endorse violence and that accusing it of treason has become a “hobby” in certain quarters. As required by the press law, Al-Wasat published the warning on August 4.

In recognition of the pressure the paper has faced and the important void it fills in the country, CPJ honored Mansoor al-Jamri, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Al-Wasat, with its International Press Freedom Award in 2011. That same year, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa approved the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry to investigate human rights violations and propose institutional and policy changes. But authorities have largely failed to carry out its recommendations, and the crackdown against the press has continued.

“With the suspension of Al-Wasat, it appears the Bahraini government does not even want to pretend anymore to respect freedom of the press,” said CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator, Sherif Mansour. “The government should immediately reverse this measure and allow Al-Wasat to continue its essential reporting role in Bahrain.”

On Monday, the de facto authorities in the Kurdish-held territory of Syria, dominated by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), announced in a statement that the licenses of Kurdish network Rudaw and Syrian opposition station Orient were being withdrawn, accusing the outlets of repeatedly publishing “lies and systematic deception” that incited violence, sparked internal discord, and spread racist ideology.

CPJ reached out to the PYD via a form on the group’s website, requesting comment about which specific broadcasts led to the withdrawal of the licenses. CPJ did not immediately receive a reply. The PYD has sometimes clashed with armed Syrian rebel groups fighting President Bashar al-Assad, which are supported by Orient TV, and the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, where Rudaw is headquartered.

The PYD has close ties to the Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK, which is outlawed in Turkey. In late July, Turkish authorities blocked domestic access to Rudaw, accusing the website of “promoting terrorist propaganda,” according to news reports.

Rudaw’s Washington bureau chief, Namo Abdulla, told CPJ that the withdrawal of its license was most likely not due to any specific story but rather to the station’s general refusal to adhere to the official PYD narrative. He said the move would prevent Rudaw journalists from reporting in the territory and would force the outlet to rely on secondhand sources and social media. Abdulla, who also authored CPJ’s 2014 report on press freedom in Iraqi Kurdistan, noted that at the same time that Rudaw was accused of being pro-PKK in Turkey, it was accused of being anti-PKK in Syria.

“The political and military situation in Syria and Iraq may be confusing, but one thing should be crystal clear for any party seeking international recognition and support: Journalists must be allowed to work freely,” CPJ’s Mansour said. “The local authorities in Kurdish-held territory of Syria should immediately retract their decision and allow Rudaw and Orient TV to operate in the areas they control.”

In December 2014, Rudaw said reporter Farhad Hamo and photographer Massoud Aqeel, two freelance journalists working for the station, were abducted by Islamic State militants in Kurdish-held Syria.