Bahrain suspends Al-Wasat, further restricting press freedom

6 June 2017 – Two days ago, on 4 June 2017, Bahrain’s Ministry of Information Affairs (MIA) indefinitely suspended both the print and online publication of Al-Wasat, Bahrain’s only independent newspaper. This move came in response to an article in Al-Wasat’s 4 June issue in which the author discussed events related to ongoing unrest in Morocco. Bahraini authorities have taken similar steps to silence Al-Wasat – and independent journalism more broadly – in the past. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) strongly condemns the closure of Al-Wasat and calls on the Government of Bahrain to immediately reverse its decision. We additionally call on the authorities to allow independent media to operate freely in the country and halt all forms of reprisal against journalists.

According to Mansoor al-Jamri, the editor-in-chief of Al-Wasat, the MIA called the newspaper over the weekend to inform it of the government’s decision to indefinitely prohibit its publication. Bahraini authorities reportedly followed this verbal notification with a letter, neither of which provided any explanation for the closure. On the same day, the MIA released an official statement in which it claimed that the newspaper had repeatedly violated the law and spread information that “would stir divisions within the community and undermine the Kingdom of Bahrain’s relations with other countries.” The statement also referred to a column in that day’s edition of Al-Wasat that allegedly “included a defamation of a sisterly Arab country.” This is an apparent reference to an editorial discussing protests in the northern Moroccan region of Rif. The legal basis for closing Al-Wasat in response to such an article appears to be Article 70 of the 2002 press law, which prohibits the publication of materials seen as “abusive” towards leaders of states with which Bahrain has diplomatic relations.

Al-Jamri described the sudden closure as a “total surprise” and said that the newspaper was denied due process. The Government of Bahrain has reportedly failed to provide Al-Wasat with any means of recourse, leaving it without a clear understanding of how to proceed in the face of its indeterminate suspension. Nevertheless, al-Jamri has stated that he hopes to try and reverse the decision.

“The Bahraini government’s decision to indefinitely suspend the publication of Al-Wasat, the country’s only independent newspaper, is the latest in a rapidly expanding series of attacks on what remains of the country’s civil society,” said Husain Abdulla, Executive Director of ADHRB. “This blatant rejection of press freedom and free expression came just days before the start of the 35th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. The countries gathered in Geneva must respond to the Bahraini government’s actions with swift condemnation and concerted pressure aimed at reversing this repressive step.”

The Government of Bahrain has targeted Al-Wasat over the contents of its articles and suspended its publication several times in the past. In 2010, for example, the Bahraini government banned Al-Wasat from broadcasting audio reports and interviews on its website. Excluding the present suspension, the Bahraini authorities have also closed Al-Wasat without notice on three other occasions: during the mass pro-democracy movement in 2011, the MIA suspended Al-Wasat for a day and allowed it to reopen only after senior staff members resigned; in 2015, Bahraini authorities issued warnings about the contents of the newspaper’s columns and suspended it for two days over its failure to use the term “martyrs” while describing Bahraini military casualties in Yemen; and in January 2017, the government banned Al-Wasat from publishing online after the paper’s 16 January edition included headlines and pictures of three torture victims that were executed by Bahraini authorities the day before.  Moreover, in 2011, Al-Wasat’s cofounder, Karim Fakhrawi, died after being arrested and interrogated by the National Security Agency. His body showed clear signs of torture.

Beyond explicitly targeting Al-Wasat for its independent reporting, the Government of Bahrain exercises excessive control over media in the kingdom and severely restricts press freedom. Recently, on 25 May 2017, for example, a Bahraini court fined the prominent France 24 and Radio Monte Carlo Doualiya journalist Nazeeha Saeed the equivalent of $2,650 on charges of working as a journalist without a permit after the authorities refused to renew her media accreditation in June 2016. Saeed has been repeatedly targeted for her work and survived torture in 2011. Earlier in May, Bahraini authorities also denied an entry visa to German journalist Robert Kempe, allegedly due to his prior reporting on human rights violations in the kingdom. These moves prompted the Committee to Protect Journalists and several other rights groups and media outlets to address Bahrain’s King Hamad in an open letter in April 2017 decrying the government’s “seeming attempt to silence independent reporting within the country” through the refusal of entry visas and media accreditations.

ADHRB condemns both the Government of Bahrain’s decision to suspend Al-Wasat and its overall repression of press freedom in the country. Such actions are unacceptable and place the Bahraini government in clear violation of its obligations under international human rights law. As such, ADHRB calls on the Government of Bahrain to lift the ban on Al-Wasat’s publication and to allow independent media to operate freely in the country. We call on members of the international community to urge the Bahraini authorities to reverse these repressive measures without delay.