Today, 2 November 2017, Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) observes the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists established by the United Nations (UN). Around the world, over 900 journalists have died in the past ten years while bringing news and information to the public. However, only one in ten of these cases has resulted in a successful conviction that holds the perpetrators responsible. The UN, in Resolution A/RES/68/163, urges all Member States to “implement definite measures countering the present culture of impunity.” Violence against media workers and journalists must end, and all actors implicated in targeting members of the press brought to justice.
Bahrain is among the worst countries for freedom of the press in the world. The kingdom has received extremely low ratings in both Reporters Sans Frontieres’ (RSF) annual World Press Freedom Index and Freedom House’s annual Freedom of the Press report. In 2017, Bahrain ranked 163 out of the 180 countries assessed by RSF, placing it only above Saudi Arabia in terms of media freedom in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. Bahrain scored an 87 in Freedom House’s 2017 report, with 100 representing total press restriction. The report takes into account each country’s legal, political, and economic environment, and Bahrain’s low score is largely due to its extensive limitations on free expression – particularly government criticism and peaceful dissent. The kingdom’s excessively broad anti-terror law, for example, criminalizes anything determined to be insulting to the king.
Bahraini authorities have increasingly used such legislation to suppress civil society as a whole, with the government systematically dismantling what little civic space remains in the kingdom. Following the mass pro-democracy protests of 2011, the government has intensified its persecution and censorship of all critical voices, from civilian and professional journalists to human rights defenders and religious leaders. Though King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa has issued past statements calling press freedom “the cornerstone of human rights and a mirror of our fledgling democracy,” his words stand in stark contrast to his government’s continued suppression of open and honest journalism. The authorities have even barred and expelled foreign journalists, while prosecuting activists for merely providing interviews, like opposition leader Ebrahim Sharif and human rights defender Nabeel Rajab.
In recent years, members of the media have been harassed, attacked, detained, deported, and prosecuted bin Bahrain. Just this year, Bahrain’s last remaining independent newspaper, Al-Wasat, was arbitrarily suspended by the government, forcing it to lay off a staff of over 150 and ultimately shut down its operations. Even before this incident, the government repeatedly subjected Al-Wasat to arbitrary suspensions and restrictions, while failing to investigate cases of intimidation and harassment. Journalists were routinely arrested or denied domestic accreditation amid online defamation campaigns targeting the newspaper.
In 2011, Bahrain’s National Security Agency (NSA) detained Karim Fakhrawi, Al-Wasat’s cofounder, and tortured him to death. Though the government investigated the case amid public pressure, the responsible officials were not charged with torture leading to death, which can result in up to life in prison. Instead, the two officials were ultimately sentenced to only three years in prison on appeal, further contributing to the culture of impunity in Bahrain.
Another journalist targeted by the Bahraini authorities is Nazeeha Saeed, the Bahrain correspondent for France 24 and the Arabic-language Monte Carlo Doualiya radio. In May 2011, police detained Saeed after she covered a police killing during a protest and subjected her to severe torture. Despite Saeed directly identifying the perpetrators, they were never held accountable. In June 2016, Saeed was placed on a travel ban without notification or justification, and most recently the government detained and fined her over $2,000 USD for allegedly reporting without official permission or license. She persists that her documents for accreditation were filed on time, and this action is a reprisal for her reporting.
Photographers Husain Hubail and Ahmed Humaidan have faced similar attacks. Hubail is an award winning freelance journalist who frequently documented protests. He was arrested in July of 2013 and taken to the Criminal Investigatory Directorate (CID) for interrogation, where the authorities tortured him and denied him medical treatment for a heart condition. He was later convicted on charges related to inciting hatred against the regime and received a five year prison sentence. Similarly, Humaidan was disappeared by men in civilian clothing after he covered a demonstration before ultimately being sentenced to ten years in prison. Humaidan’s family said that the authorities had long sought his arrest, reporting that their home had been raided five times in recent months.
The case of Ahmed Ismail Hassan, who has been jointly profiled by ADHRB and IFEX for the latter’s No Impunity campaign, is perhaps most emblematic. Hassan was a 22-year-old videographer and journalist covering the pro-democracy movement when he was shot to death by Bahraini security forces in 2012. Some witnesses state that the police shot at him because they saw his video equipment. Hassan had been previously harassed by the authorities, and his family was interrogated as he died of his wounds. The government has never identified a perpetrator.
“By prosecuting reporters, closing newspapers, and failing to hold abusive authorities responsible, the Bahraini government has created an environment that encourages and facilitates attacks on the media,” said ADHRB’s Executive Director Husain Abdulla. “Officials are increasingly even barring foreign journalists from the country – or prosecuting activists and other individuals for simply speaking them – closing off all opportunity for open, credible reporting on Bahrain’s deepening political and human rights crisis. On a day like today, the international community needs to redouble its efforts to ensure countries like Bahrain are not permitted to continue silencing independent voices without consequence.”
On the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, ADHRB calls on the Government of Bahrain to end the culture of impunity for attacks on the media by actively and transparently investigating all reports of abuse. Furthermore, ADHRB urges the kingdom’s international partners to bring real pressure on the government to lift its extensive restrictions on the fundamental right to free expression, and to immediately and unconditionally release all arbitrarily detained journalists.