Supporters of Bahraini Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa hold signs reading "Supporting the clean man" and "FIFA will be safe with Salman" in Zurich, Switzerland, February 26, 2016. (AP/Michael Probst)
Supporters of Bahraini Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa hold signs reading “Supporting the clean man” and “FIFA will be safe with Salman” in Zurich, Switzerland, February 26, 2016. (AP/Michael Probst)

German reporter denied Bahrain visa to cover FIFA congress

New York, May 10, 2017–Bahraini immigration authorities should grant freelance journalist Robert Kempe a visa and ensure that journalists are able to cover international events in the country, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Kempe told CPJ that Bahrain denied him a visa to cover FIFA’s 2017 Congress, which is being held in the capital Manama today and tomorrow, for the German broadcaster ARD.

An official from Bahrain’s Ministry of Information on April 25 emailed Kempe, copying a FIFA official, informing the journalist that the ministry had not approved his request, without elaborating. Kempe told CPJ he believes the decision might have been the result of his February 2016 report for the German broadcaster WRD, which included allegations that Bahraini royal Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa, who is also FIFA’s vice-president, was involved in human rights violations in the Bahraini government’s response to mass protests in 2011. Sheikh Salman denies any connection to rights violations. Kempe was the only journalist in ARD’s team denied a visa, the journalist said.

“In the absence of any official explanation, it is hard to come to any other conclusion than that Bahrain’s denial of a visa to Robert Kempe is petty, vindictive retribution for his past reporting on allegations of human rights abuses in the country,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “We call on Bahrain to allow journalists, all journalists, to cover international events in the country.”

A FIFA spokesman told CPJ that Bahraini authorities did not provide them an explanation either.

“FIFA was made aware by the Bahraini authorities about the visa denial and has raised this matter to the highest possible level, but unfortunately without success,” FIFA spokesman Hans Hultman told CPJ. “The Ministry of Information has maintained the position mentioned. No detailed reason was given. The freedom of the press is of paramount importance to FIFA and we always aim to provide media representatives with the best possible conditions for free coverage of all FIFA events.”

In a May 9 statement, ARD’s sports coordinator, Axel Belkausky, called the decision “a massive interference with press freedom by the Bahraini authorities.” He called on FIFA to guarantee “free reporting” of its events.

Representatives of the Bahraini Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not immediately respond to CPJ’s email seeking comment.

In an April 27 letter to Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, CPJ joined news agencies, broadcasters, and other press freedom groups in calling for the kingdom to cease denying visas to foreign reporters and refusing to accredit Bahraini journalists working for foreign media outlets.

CPJ has previously documented press freedom violations during other major international sporting events. In August 2016, the International Olympic Committee agreed to create a reporting mechanism for journalists to document press freedom violations.