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GOVERNMENT STOKES SECTARIAN TENSIONS TO JUSTIFY CRACKDOWN ON PRESS

Just over a month after the Bahrain government said it would eliminate prison sentences for journalists and lift some bans on censored publications, it has done a massive U-turn. Authorities in the country are cracking down on opposition journalists, websites and even mosque leaders for apparently stirring up sectarian tensions and threatening national security, reports the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR).

At least three journalists writing for the main opposition group mouthpiece "Al-Wefaq" were arrested on 28 June and held overnight, report BCHR and Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Another three journalists in charge of the website Awaal.net - shut down on 24 June because of its "sectarian nature" - were also detained. All six were charged with "inciting hatred of the government" and "disseminating news that would raise sectarian divisions", says BCHR. At least two of them showed signs of being tortured while in police custody.

According to BHCR, the men had published information implicating the King and senior members of the royal family in administrative and financial corruption scandals - including the seizure of large areas of public lands and the naturalisation of thousands of non-Bahrainis based on their political beliefs.

The Bahraini government introduced amendments to the country's press law in May, eliminating prison sentences for journalists and prior censorship on publications, say RSF and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). But it is still possible to charge and jail journalists using the penal code and anti-terrorism laws, the groups say.

BCHR says the Bahraini authorities are exploiting religious tensions - often stoked by officials themselves - to justify a crackdown on the press and critical voices.

"Many violations in Bahrain are committed using the name and powers of the King ... He has become a part of the conflict rather than a symbol of national unity," says BCHR.

Take the blocked websites. Besides Awaal.net, the Ministry of Information closed down two other sites on 24 June because they published stories of a "sectarian nature" that might "harm social stability in Bahrain," reports BCHR. According to RSF, at least 24 other political websites are currently blocked in Bahrain - including the sites of BCHR and IFEX member Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI).

During a cabinet meeting in June, the government announced plans to set up a commission to monitor mosques, press articles and online forums for any violations concerning the King, national unity and Arab identity - offences under Bahrain's penal code, says RSF.

In another case, activist Abdullah Bou-Hassan was arrested for writing an article published in the newsletter of the National Democratic Action Society and for displaying a political banner in his car, reports BCHR. He was charged under the penal code with inciting hatred and insulting the ruling regime.

"We are frustrated that after we read in the press that the Cabinet is moving towards abolishing prison sentences for journalists, this incident proves that the legal system in Bahrain, and particularly the penal code, still contains provisions stipulating punishment through imprisonment for writing, publishing and distribution," says BCHR.

BCHR is demanding that the government reform the penal code and other laws that restrict freedom of the press, online journalism and preaching in mosques under the pretext of easing sectarian tensions.

The proposed amendments to the press law will be reviewed in Parliament in October.

Visit these links:
- BHCR on website closures, sectarian tensions: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/95155/
- BCHR: http://www.bahrainrights.org/en
- RSF: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=27741
- IFJ: http://tinyurl.com/6mr3x8
- IFEX Bahrain page: http://tinyurl.com/ytqq7w
- Bahrain Journalists' Association: http://www.bja-bh.org/en
(9 July 2008)

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