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Journalist Lamees Dhaif summoned to Public Prosecutor's Office, faces charges under Penal Code

(BCHR/IFEX) - BCHR expresses its concern over the aggressive attitude of the local authorities towards journalists, writers and columnists, as many of them are prosecuted for exercising their professional right to report on issues of public interest.

Lamees Dhaif, a well known columnist, journalist and reporter, was recently summoned to the Public Prosecutor's Office on charges brought by the Supreme Judiciary Council deputy, after the journalist accused some members of the judiciary of corruption in a series of newspaper articles. The newspaper series, entitled, "Shameful case: The Time for Silence is Over", was part of a campaign by Dhaif calling for a family law. The articles included criticisms of the judicial authorities.

Dhaif was summoned to appear at the Public Prosecutor's Office on 5 March 2009 as a citizen rather than as a journalist expressing her views on public issues. She refused to appear unless the editor-in-chief of the media outlet she works for, "Al-Waqt" (Time) newspaper, as well as a representative of the Bahrain Journalists' Association (BJA), were present. The Public Prosecutor's Office has issued another summons calling for her and the other two representatives to appear.

Dhaif is facing charges under Article 216 of the Penal Code, which states that those who "publicly insult, in any form, the National Council, other statutory bodies, the army, the courts, the Authorities or the public interest" may be punished with "imprisonment or a fine." She faces the possibility of imprisonment for a term of up to three years. Article 216 does not specify the magnitude of the fine that can be applied, but rather leaves it up to the discretion of the judge.

Dhaif is a well known columnist who has commented on many issues of public interest that are considered subversive or sensitive and she has been harassed because of her work, especially during her previous employment at "Al-Ayam" newspaper, where many of her articles were not published due to censorship. In her current position at "Al-Waqt", Dhaif is also well known and online readers have posted comments applauding her courage and admiring her handling of issues that are of interest to the public. She has courageously tackled issues including corruption in many government bodies, politically motivated naturalization, prostitution, money laundering, human trafficking and drugs, religious freedoms, and education and labour rights, among others.

Dhaif, a BJA board member, has said: "The charges against me are based on the 1976 Penal Code and not the 2002 Press Code, that is, on the basis that I am a 'citizen' who violated the Penal Code and not a journalist practicing my profession and tackling issues considered defamatory to the Judiciary." She went on to say: "The Public Prosecutor's Office has opened another channel by which to prosecute journalists outside of the framework of the Press Code".

According to the BJA, the number of cases against journalists considered by the criminal courts in 2008 was 22. Some of the cases have been brought to a close while others are ongoing. In 2007, however, the number of cases against journalists came to 46, most of which were brought forward by high officials in the government or members of the House of Representatives.

Nabeel Rajab, the president of BCHR, said: "We are very alarmed by this escalation of actions against a journalist. This is the second such case within a week. Last week, Ms. Maryam Al-Shoroogi, another columnist and journalist, attended her first court session for criticizing a public office." Rajab added: "What worries us most is that the 2002 Press Code has dual punishments; one by way of its stipulations of specific penalties and the other by leading to more severe punishments using other laws like the Penal Code, or even the notorious Counter Terrorism Law. We demand that both laws, the Press Code and the Penal Code, be amended to conform to international standards preventing the imprisonment of journalists for performing their duties."

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