On Thursday 9 November, two journalists working for a Swiss news outlet were detained and forcibly disappeared in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Serge Enderlin and Jon Bjorgvinsson were in Abu Dhabi to cover the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi and interview the museum’s architect, Jean Nouvel. The pair claims that they were accredited to cover the event, which included a visit from Emmanuel Macron, President of France.
The journalists were recording footage of an open air marketplace when Emirati security forces abruptly detained them. The security officials confiscated their equipment, including phones and watches, in addition to cameras, computers, and storage disks, before blindfolding them and taking them separate facilities. After his release, Enderlin recalled that during their time in custody, he was forced to give up his cellphone password. While security forces did not physically harm the men, they interrogated them for up to nine hours at a time. The interrogators seemed concerned with the journalists’ reasons for filming and were particularly alarmed that Pakistani migrant workers had been filmed and questioned if the pair was working for a third party state or non-governmental organization. During their 50 hours of detention, the journalists had no contact with the outside world or their families. They were only released after signing a confession that the journalists could not read as the document was written in Arabic. Following their release on Saturday night, both journalists were allowed to return to Zurich, however their equipment and personal belongings were unwillingly left behind.
Upon his return to Switzerland, Serge Enderlin explained the reason for filming in the market, saying that, “All we wanted to do was put the opening of the Louvre in a wider context – as a flip-side to the glitz of the museum we wanted to show the migrant workers who actually built it.” Unfortunately, the workers who helped to construct the dazzling museum were subjected to a wide range of abuses. Enderlin’s remarks referred to widespread concerns regarding the treatment of migrant workers that have been raised recently in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), most notably with Qatar set to host the World Cup in 2022 and Saudi Arabia’s recent cuts to expat visas.
The arrest of the two Swiss journalists for their reporting on sensitive issues comes only one week after the United Nations International Day to End Impunity against Journalists, celebrated every year on 2 November, and highlights the plight of journalists around the GCC.
Bahrain is one of the worst offenders in the Gulf. Security forces and the government routinely harass, attack, detain, deport, prosecute and denaturalize members of the Bahraini media community. In 2011, security forces detained and tortured to death Karim Fakhrawi, the founder of Bahrain’s only semi-independent newspaper Al-Wasat. The government only opened an investigation into his death after intense public pressure. While the investigation led to a conviction, the punishment that accompanied it was lessened on appeal, highlighting the intense impunity that runs rampant in Bahrain. Most recently, in June of 2017, the government arbitrarily suspended the paper.
Bahrain is not the only member of the GCC to commit such crimes. In September 2017, Saudi security forces arrested 16 individuals, ranging from prominent religious figures, writers and journalists, to academics, activists and prominent human rights defenders. They were arrested because they were perceived to be critical of Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince, and of the government’s policies towards Qatar.
This is not the first time that Saudi Arabia has silenced critical voices and journalists. In July 2015 Saudi authorities arrested prominent writer Zuhair Kutbi, following a television interview he gave outlining ideas for reform. Security forces initially detained him without cause, before later sentencing him to four years in prison, followed by a five year travel ban and fifteen year ban on writing and giving news interviews. After serving two years of his sentence, Kutbi was released in November of 2017. However, Nadhir al-Majid who was arrested in April 2011, remains in prison. Saudi security forces arrested him after he published an opinion piece in the Australia-based, Arabic-language magazine Al-Mothaqaf that was deemed to “slander the ruler” and that supported Saudi’s right to protest. He was convicted on charges of “slandering the ruler and breaking allegiance with him,” and “sending a group of electronic messages to a number of media outlets and satellite TV channels and human rights organizations.” These charges were accompanied by a seven year prison sentence, subsequent seven year travel ban and large fine. In July 2017 an appeals court upheld this conviction and al-Majid continues to languish behind bars for his opinion.
Oman, another GCC offender, has repeatedly demonstrated a flagrant disregard for journalists and free press. In July 2016, authorities arrested Ibrahim al-Ma’mari, editor in chief of independent newspaper Azamn. The arrest followed the publication of a story that claimed the chairman of the Omani Supreme Court had participated in unlawful activities and interfered with justice. After the editor was arrested, the government informed Azamn that they were not permitted to publish an article supporting Ma’mari or reporting on his arrest. After Azamn reporter, Zahar Al-Abri reported on Twitter that the Minister of Information had threatened the paper, Al-Abri was arrested. Ma’mari was sentenced to three years in the prison, a fine of 3,000 rials and a one year ban from practicing journalism for “charges of undermining the prestige of the state, misusing the internet, disturbing public order, and publishing documents regarding an ongoing court case.” Al-Abri was sentenced to one year in prison and dealt a large fine for similar charges.
The arrest of the Swiss journalists by Emirati security officers is indicative of the broader negative attitude towards press and media freedoms displayed by the states of the GCC. Unfortunately all around the region, journalists are subjected to intense harassment and retribution for their work, and all too often, Gulf governments allow the perpetrators of these crimes to roam free without accountability. The impunity against journalists and against those in the independent media community must come to an end. The right to engage in journalism and freely share investigative findings must be protected. A free press is essential to holding governments accountable for abuses and ensuring that the truth can be told.
Emily Stone is an Advocacy Intern at ADHRB