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Thirty-one IFEX members and 22 other organisations call on UN High Commissioner to support human rights activists, journalists and bloggers

(CIHRS/IFEX) - Thirty-one IFEX members and 22 other organisations signed this joint letter to Navanethem Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, about ongoing violations of freedom of expression in Bahrain:

Ms. Navanethem Pillay
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
Palais des Nations,
1211 Genève 10 - Switzerland
Email: [email protected]
Tel: +41-22-917-9000 / Fax: +41-22-917-9008 or +1-212-963-4097

24 March 2010

Dear Ms. Navanethem Pillay,

The undersigned non-governmental organisations (NGOs) express their grave concerns about the ongoing media and legal campaigns being carried out by Bahraini authorities to stifle freedom of expression and deter the activism of human rights defenders (HRDs). Many HRDs have also been subject to harassment, prosecution, indictment and imprisonment. In addition, independent journalists have been taken to court for critical writings, and blogs and websites have been censored. As such, we are pleased to hear of your upcoming country visit to Bahrain in April, and request that you include the following cases and information in your assessment.

These HRDs are being targeted after providing source material to numerous international media agencies and NGOs that issue statements and reports that are critical of the Bahraini government's human rights record. They are also targeted for their human rights advocacy; for providing legal support to victims of government torture or ill-treatment; and for carrying out other human rights work such as organising and participating in peaceful public gatherings.

Much of the media in Bahrain - including television, radio and most newspapers - are state-controlled and have systematically been waging public defamation campaigns against HRDs and dissidents. The government-owned, local media have publicly named specific HRDs as "traitors" who allegedly receive funds and instructions from foreign powers to disrupt the political stability of Bahrain. These allegations could easily be used as the basis for legal charges that are heavily punishable under Bahraini laws. Moreover, the authorities publicly threaten to prosecute and imprison HRDs when they express their critical views of the government in meetings abroad.

Additionally, using anonymous names in electronic forums and mobile phones with untraceable numbers, explicit and abusive threats have been made to intimidate and threaten well-known HRDs. The offensive postings in on-line forums are then circulated by email all over Bahrain, widening the smear campaign.

HRDs who currently find themselves the subjects of systematic defamation and harassment campaigns include Mr. Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, former president of Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) and presently a protection coordinator at Frontline Defenders in Ireland; Mr. Nabeel Rajab, president of BCHR; Dr. Abduljalil Alsingace, Head of Human Rights Bureau in the Bahrain Movement of Civil Liberties and Democracy (HAQ); Mrs. Ghada Jamsheer, women rights activist and president of the Women's Petition Committee in Bahrain; Mr. Mohammed Al-Maskati, president of Bahrain Youth Human Rights Society (BYSHR); and Mr. Abdulghani Al-Khanjar, spokesman of the National Committee of Victims of Torture.

Despite earlier calls and petitions by international NGOs to the Bahraini government demanding an end to the harassment and defamation campaigns targeting HRDs, these campaigns continue to escalate whenever human rights violations in Bahrain are the focus of international attention. Attacks on BCHR escalate as a result of the dissemination of BCHR alerts via the International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX), a network of 88 NGOs worldwide, to which BCHR is a member. The latest defamation campaign carried out against some of the above activists came after the release of a recent series of reports by US-based organisations and IFEX members Freedom House, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Human Rights Watch.

The local media does not cover human rights activities and comments from HRDs. Thus, the international media have been the main sources of information on human rights violations in Bahrain, often interviewing HRDs on many local issues. However, these foreign media have also been subject to harassment and restrictions when they cover sensitive topics, such as the recent temporary suspension of two correspondents from Agence France Presse and Deutsche Presse Agentur in January 2010 after they reported on the outcomes of a legal case.

Several journalists and bloggers have also suffered from attacks on freedom of expression. In 2009, Ms. Mariam Al-Shoroogi, a journalist and columnist at "Alwasat" newspaper, was indicted and fined by the Higher Criminal Court on charges of insulting the Civil Services Bureau after reporting on discrimination. The case was upheld on appeal and will now be taken to the Cassation Court. For reporting about corruption in the Labour Market Regulatory Authority (LMRA), Mr. Husain Sabt, a journalist at "Alwaqt" newspaper, was brought to the Higher Criminal Court on charges for publicly defaming an official. After numerous court sessions, Mr. Sabt was obliged to post an apology in the newspaper. Mr. Ali Saleh, a columnist at "Albilad" newspaper, has been indefinitely suspended from writing in any of the local newspapers after publishing a series of articles on democratic reforms.

Blogs that cover human rights issues are often blocked in Bahrain. The blogs "Alfaseela" by Abduljalil Alsingace, "Bahraineve" by Ghada Jamsheer, as well as other blogs of anonymous owners have been blocked from within Bahrain as part of a government campaign to block thousands of websites. NGOs whose websites are blocked include BCHR and the Arab Network of Human Rights Information (ANHRI). The blocking also extends to postings on Facebook and Twitter.

Journalists and bloggers are vulnerable under the Penal Code of 1976 and the Press Code of 2002, which have been used to prosecute and imprison critical writers. Establishing and operating an NGO without the permission of the authorities is also a crime punishable under the Civic Societies Law of 1989; Mr. Mohammed Al-Maskati, President of BYSHR, is currently facing imprisonment charges under this law before the court.

At the same time, the government has set up a number of fake NGOs (GONGOs) which aim to discredit the work of legitimate rights groups such as BCHR and BYSHR. BCHR has written a report on the matter.

Furthermore, the public prosecution and the judiciary have been used to silence and undermine human rights defenders, dissidents and journalists who have been vocal about human rights violations and corruption in various ministries.

Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja and Abduljalil Alsingace, along with other activists, were separately prosecuted on charges of "instigating hatred to the regime and publicly calling for its overthrow" for speeches and public writings they made in Bahrain that were critical of the government. The procedures of these cases were suspended upon a royal amnesty. However, it remains unclear whether or not the charges have been dropped; which render their prosecution for the same charges possible.

In light of the systematic violations of freedom of expression and other human rights in Bahrain, we appeal to you to do following:

  • Conduct in-person meetings with the rights activists and journalists mentioned in this letter and take up these cases and issues directly with authorities. We are concerned that the Bahraini authorities may try to prevent you from meeting these legitimate, independent NGOs;
  • Urge the Special Rapporteur of the UN Secretary General on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders (to whom a case will be filed separately) to appeal to the government to lift the ban on the BCHR, which has been closed since 2004, and to allow other NGOs such as BYSHR to operate legally and without fear of legal repercussions;
  • Ask authorities to lift the censorship imposed on thousands of websites, including those of human rights organisations and independent journalists and activists.

    By addressing the situation in Bahrain, we trust that your office will endeavour to improve the safety and well-being of HRDs in Bahrain as per the mandate given the OHCHR under the Charter of the United Nations. This will greatly assist human rights defenders to continue their work for the protection and promotion of freedom of expression and other human rights in Bahrain.

    Sincerely,

    Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
    Arab Archives Institute
    Arabic Network for Human Rights Information
    ARTICLE 19
    Association of Caribbean Media Workers
    Bahrain Center for Human Rights
    Brazilian Association for Investigative Journalism
    Canadian Journalists for Free Expression
    Center for Media Studies & Peace Building
    Comité por la Libre Expresión - C-Libre
    Committee to Protect Journalists
    Egyptian Organization for Human Rights
    Freedom House
    Independent Journalism Center - Moldova
    Index on Censorship
    Institute of Mass Information
    International Press Institute
    Maharat Foundation
    Media Foundation for West Africa
    Media Institute of Southern Africa
    Media Rights Agenda
    National Union of Somali Journalists
    Norwegian PEN
    Observatoire pour la liberté de presse, d'édition et de création
    Pakistan Press Foundation
    Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms - MADA
    PEN International
    Public Association "Journalists"
    Reporters Without Borders
    Southeast Asian Press Alliance
    World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers

    Other Organisations:
    AMAL, Pakistan
    Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies
    Arab Foundation for Civil Society and Human Rights Support
    Arab Penal Reform Organization
    Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights
    Center for Trade Unions and Worker's Services
    Committees for the Defense of Democracy Freedoms and Human Rights in Syria
    Coordination of Action Research on AIDS & Mobility (CARAM), Malaysia
    Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies
    Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN), India
    Development Action for Women Network (DAWN), Philippines
    Egyptian Foundation for Advancement of the Childhood Conditions
    Habi Center for Environmental Rights
    International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), France
    International Migrant Alliance Research Foundation, Bangladesh
    Land Center for Human Rights
    New Women Foundation
    Observatory of the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
    Rights Jessore, Bangladesh
    Shumuu Organisation for Community Participation and Political Rights of Disabled People in Egypt
    The Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement
    The Human Rights Center for the Assistance of Prisoners

    cc. Mrs. Margaret Sekaggya,
    Special Rapporteur of the UN Secretary General on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders
    Special Procedures Division - Human Rights Defenders
    Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
    Geneva, Switzerland
    Tel: +41-22-917-9384 / Fax: +41-22-917-9006

    Mr. Frank LaRue
    The Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and the Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression
    Special Procedures Division - Human Rights Defenders
    Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
    Geneva, Switzerland

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