3 May 2016 – Today marks the United Nation’s 23rd World Press Freedom Day, which assesses the state of freedom of the press around the world and commemorates those journalists attacked, imprisoned, and tortured for their work. On this day, Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) honors those journalists in Bahrain who have worked to defend free and independent press in the country.
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.” This right can only be guaranteed if states’ legal structures allow for open expression without threat of retaliation and imprisonment. However, Bahrain’s lack of judicial independence and excessive discretionary powers under the criminal code and counter-terrorism laws provide substantial latitude for the government to censor press.
International organizations, such as Freedom House and Reporters without Borders, consider the press in Bahrain to be operating in a prohibitive environment. Bahrain’s Press Law, passed in 2002, heavily restricts the rights of media organizations. Journalists can be fined up to five years for criticism of the king, “holding [the king] responsible for any of the government’s actions,” or incitement of a change of regime. Article 214 of Bahrain’s 1976 Penal Code allows for judges to pass a prison sentence to any journalist who “offends the [king] of the country, the national flag, or emblem.” The Bahraini government also uses vague counterterror laws to censor journalists who criticize the king and country in any way.
The Government of Bahrain has convicted and imprisoned a number of journalists under such press laws. In March 2014, courts sentenced award-winning photojournalist Ahmed Humaidan to 10 years in prison for documenting the pro-democracy movement in Sitra. Government forces interrogated Humaidan without presence of a lawyer and subjected him to ill-treatment by extreme temperature exposure.
Officers also arrested Sayed Ahmed al-Mousawi, a journalistic photographer and winner of over 100 international awards, in February 2014. Security forces raided al-Mousawi’s house, seized his personal property – including his cameras, laptop, and photography equipment – and subjected him to enforced disappearance for four days. Keeping al-Mousawi in secret detention, Bahraini officers interrogated him without access to a lawyer and tortured him with beatings, electrocution, and by hanging him on a door. Courts sentenced al-Mousawi to 10 years in prison and revoked his nationality in November 2015.
In July 2013, Bahraini authorities arrested Hussein Hubail and interrogated him for four days. During his interrogation, officers tortured Hubail and threatened him with rape. Courts sentenced Hubail to five years in prison on charges of using social media to incite hatred of the regime and calling for people to ignore the law by participating in illegal demonstrations.
Further, the Bahraini government targets journalists by implementing citizenship revocation charges against them. In January 2015, Bahrain announced the denaturalization of 72 individuals. Many of these citizens were human rights defenders and political activists, and among the 72 were journalists who worked for independent media organizations. Bahraini courts also stripped the citizenship of Ali Abdulemam, Abbas AbuSafwan, Husain Yousif, and Ali al-Dairi , citing that these journalists committed “acts resulting in harm to the Kingdom’s interest.”
Bahrain also targets entire media outlets in its repression of free press. The Information Affairs Authority (IAA), under the Ministry of State for Information Affairs, suspended Al-Wasat newspaper in August 2015. The IAA claimed Al-Wasat printed materials that harmed the national unity of Bahrain and damaged the Kingdom’s relationship with other countries. Earlier in February 2015, authorities suspended a television media channel, Al-Arab. Sources report that the suspension was due to the failure of the news organization to abide by norms of Gulf media that could have negatively impacted regional unity.
In December 2015, Bahrain announced that the editors-in-chief of six daily newspapers had agreed to new Charter of Press Ethics media regulations. The regulations call for newspapers to refrain from using language that could incite “any sect or group of people… nor spread discord in society, nor undermine the national unity in any way.” Lack of precision in the language could provide for governments to use the regulations to further discriminate against the country’s Shia majority populations. Pro-government newspaper Al-Watan continues unchecked as columnists promote hateful sectarian language, while the government suspends more independent newspapers for “insulting” the king.
“We welcome this year’s UN World Press Freedom Day and stand in solidarity with those journalists who work diligently to provide information for the public, despite the increasingly dangerous environment for the press,” said Husain Abdulla, Executive Director of Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB). “The international community should support the freedoms of press and expression, along with the judicial independence that is crucially needed for the advancement of free press in Bahrain.”
Government forces silence the voice of those media organizations and journalists who report a narrative countering state approval, drastically curbing freedom of the press in Bahrain. On World Press Freedom Day, ADHRB commemorates the work of Bahraini journalists and independent media organizations and urges the Government of Bahrain to end the repression of free press. We call on the government to release all those imprisoned for their work as journalists, and repeal any laws that criminalize freedoms of expression and press in Bahrain.