Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Attacks on the Press 2009: Bahrain

Attacks on the Press 2009: Bahrain

Top Developments
• Authorities block Web sites critical of the government, the king, and Islam.
• Officials pursue politicized court complaints against critical reporters.

Key Statistic
1,040: Web sites that the Ministry of Information ordered censored in September.

Bahrain has made significant strides in improving its human rights record since political reforms enacted in 2001, particularly concerning universal suffrage and the dismantlement of an abusive state security court system. But some reforms have yet to be fully realized, among them improving political representation for the marginalized Shiite majority and ensuring more equitable standing for women in family courts. The press freedom climate, which had improved with the establishment of seven independent newspapers in the wake of the 2001 reforms, has undergone a gradual deterioration over the past several years. That decline accelerated in 2009 as the government blocked domestic access to more than 1,000 Web sites and pursued politicized court complaints against critical journalists.

Main Index
• Regional Analysis:
Human rights coverage spreads despite government pushback
Country Summaries
Israel, Occupied Palestinian Territories
Other developments

Culture and Information Minister Sheikha Mai bint Muhammad Al-Khalifa issued an order in January compelling Internet service providers to block Web sites identified as offensive by the ministry. Despite protests from numerous press freedom groups, including CPJ, the government blocked dozens of sites in the first eight months of the year. The censorship effort escalated in September, when the Ministry of Information ordered the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, the government’s Internet regulator, to block 1,040 more sites, according to the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. Although the government characterized its campaign as being aimed at pornography, CPJ research shows that journalistic blogs, news Web sites, discussion forums, and human rights Web sites were also blocked. Internet users who attempted to reach those pages were met with a screen that read: “This Web site has been blocked for violating regulations and laws of the Kingdom of Bahrain.”

With one of the most Web-connected populations in the region—a third of its residents are online—Bahrain had been home to hundreds of Web sites, according to the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. Among them were about 200 blogs, many focusing on political and social issues and most written anonymously. Bahrain filters sites critical of the government, the ruling family, and Islam, according to August 2009 findings published by OpenNet Initiative, an academic partnership that studies Internet censorship.

The online dichotomy reflects the country’s political development over the past decade: Steps toward reform and transparency have been followed by steps back toward repression. Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa replaced his more conservative father in 1999 as emir and proclaimed himself king in 2002. In response to decades-long demands from the country’s dispossessed Shiite majority, he led the institution of significant reforms in 2001 that included the release of political prisoners, the return of exiles, and the drafting of a new constitution that resurrected parliament after three decades of dormancy. After the reforms of 2001, Bahrain’s media underwent a revival as five Arabic and two English newspapers began tackling sensitive topics such as human rights, corruption, and discrimination against Shiite citizens. Facing the emergence of critical news media, the government embraced legislative tools to suppress content.

Despite constitutional guarantees for press freedom, government agencies continued to enforce the heavy-handed Press and Publications Law of 2002, which prescribes prison terms of up to five years for material considered an affront to Islam or the king, and content perceived as undermining state security or the monarchy. The appointed upper chamber of parliament has twice proposed press law amendments—most recently in 2008—intended to mitigate its harshest provisions, but an elected lower chamber dominated by conservative elements has consistently turned back those proposals.

Government officials pursued politicized criminal complaints against two journalists who had produced investigative reports on alleged public corruption. In each case, the government appeared less intent on jailing the journalists than on harassing them through repeated court summonses.

Maryam al-Shrooqi, a reporter for the independent daily Al-Wasat, was found guilty in September on insult charges stemming from a 2008 article that alleged religious discrimination in the hiring policies of the Department of Civil Services. The department had filed a criminal complaint, accusing her of insult and the more serious charges of fabrication and defamation. The Supreme Criminal Court eventually dismissed the most serious charges and fined al-Shrooqi 50 dinars (US$133). The court also ordered Al-Wasat to print a summary of the verdict in the same place in the paper as the original article. An appeal was pending in late year.

Lamees Dhaif, a columnist for the privately owned daily Al-Waqt, was also summoned to court on charges of insulting the judiciary in a series, “The Dossier of Great Shame,” published in February. The pieces detailed alleged bias against women in family courts, reflecting one of the unfulfilled political reforms of 2001. The Supreme Judicial Council, the judiciary’s highest administrative body, had lodged a criminal complaint against Dhaif after she refused a judiciary official’s demands to write an apology and an article praising the court system. The prosecution was suspended in September but can be resurrected at any time.

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