25 January 2018 – Saudi broadcaster Al Arabiya has been fined £120,000 ($171,556) by Ofcom, a British communications regulatory body, for infringing on the privacy of imprisoned Bahraini political leader and torture survivor Hassan Mashaima. The penalty follows the regulator’s decision, in April 2017, that Al Arabiya would face sanctions for broadcasting a recorded testimony that was extracted in detention under threat of torture. In its programming, Al Arabiya never presented the fact that Mashaima maintains his innocence, nor that his torture is well-documented. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) welcome Ofcom’s decision and urge Al Arabiya to immediately remove the defamatory content online and issue an immediate apology to Mashiama and his family.
Hassan Mashaima, a political opposition leader, is one of the Bahrain 13, a group of human rights defenders, activists, and religious leaders who were arrested, tortured, and sentenced to arbitrary prison terms for their involvement with the 2011 pro-democracy protests. Mashaima’s torture has been documented by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) and by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture. During Mashaima’s trial, he was not permitted to testify, nor was his lawyer allowed to speak in his defense. A military court sentenced him to life in prison on charges stemming from his calls to establish a republic in Bahrain. Mashaima is currently serving his term in Bahrain’s Jau Prison, where the authorities have subjected him to further abuses, such as the arbitrary deprivation of medical care.
On 27 February 2016, the Saudi-owned network Al Arabiya aired a program about the 2011 Arab Spring events in Bahrain entitled February Box. In it, Al Arabiya broadcast footage of Mashaima speaking on camera. Mashaima states that Al Arabiya wrongfully presented footage of him giving a forced confession as willful testimony. The “interview” aired by the network, he says, was recorded in May-June 2011, when he was in police custody and subject to constant abuse, torture, and threats.
Ali Mashaima, the son of the complainant, said: “There is nothing more painful to me than knowing the torture that my father went through in his imprisonment. Al Arabiya’s deplorable program shows my father at his most vulnerable and it deeply distressed our whole family. Al Arabiya has diverged from journalistic ethics and allowed itself to be a propaganda tool to polish the image of torturers, while tarnishing the image of activists.”
Mashaima, who was distressed by the program, complained to Ofcom, stating that the program unfairly presented his case and constituted an unwarranted infringement of his privacy. He told his son, Ali, by phone: “It is a wholly political act, to see the media intimidate a torture victim who cannot defend himself.” In addition to falsely presenting testimony provided under duress as a consensual interview, Mashaima asserted that Al Arabiya had failed to air any information that challenged the narrative put forth by the Bahraini government, including the 2011 findings of the BICI and the rulings of UN human rights bodies. The network also failed to provide him with any opportunity to respond to the program and its allegations.
After investigating the complaint, Ofcom found that Al Arabiya had unfairly depicted Mashaima; failed to give him an opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing; and violated his legitimate expectation of privacy. Moreover, Ofcom found that the program included footage that could “materially and adversely affect viewers’ perception of [Mashaima] and the broadcaster did not make clear what steps it had taken to ensure that material facts had not been presented, omitted or disregarded in a way that was unfair to Mr Mashaima [sic].” Ofcom went on to note that, “Given the high-profile and well-publicized nature of these events, it is Ofcom’s view that Al Arabiya News was aware, or ought to have been aware, at least by the date of the broadcast (27 February 2016), that the statements being made by Mr Mashaima [sic] in the footage filmed in early 2012 may not have accurately or fairly represented his account of events.” As a result, Ofcom concluded that the presentation – and specifically the omission of the BICI’s findings that Mashaima had been tortured – was indeed unfair.
Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, Director of Advocacy at BIRD, said: “Ofcom’s decision sends a clear message that Saudi Arabia and Bahrain can’t use their state media outlets to spread misinformation and fake news without consequences. After such heinous crimes as torture, sham trials and an unjust life sentence, Hassan Mashaima continues to suffer abuse perpetrated by the Bahraini authorities. Most recently, he has even been denied access to appropriate medication. Every second he spends in jail is another black mark in the legacy of torture by the Bahraini government.”
Today’s £120,000 fine follows the publication of a statement by Amnesty International highlighting the fact that Mashaima has been denied adequate medical treatment, including appropriate medication for his diabetes, during his time in detention.
In addition to the fine, Ofcom also held that Al Arabiya should be directed to refrain from broadcasting the material found in breach again. However, in spite of this, the channel has continued to broadcast the offending documentary on their YouTube channel.
Husain Abdulla, Executive Director of ADHRB and Mashaima’s representative in the complaint, stated: “While more prisoners of conscience are tortured into Bahrain’s prisons every day, Al-Arabiya – a mouthpiece for the Saudi government – has been free to reinforce a false narrative conflating legitimate pro-democracy activism with terrorism. Until now. We welcome Ofcom’s sound judgment in this case as well as its firm sanction. Al Arabiya must immediately remove the video from all platforms and take steps to guarantee this will not happen again.”
ADHRB and BIRD are encouraged by today’s sanction against Al Arabiya, but urge Ofcom to enforce its decision that the network refrain from broadcasting the material in any other form, including via their YouTube channel. We call on Al Arabiya to immediately remove this footage and ensure its future broadcasts do not further perpetuate the abuses suffered by prisoners of conscience like Hassan Mashaima.