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Press freedom situation worsens as authorities attempt to whitewash actions

(WAN-IFRA/IFEX) - Inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, the people of Bahrain took to the streets on 14 February, 2011 demanding change. More than a year after protests began on Pearl Roundabout, the epicentre of the Bahraini revolution, many argue that little has changed for the better. For the press, this sentiment is echoed most acutely.

A number of organisations have conducted missions and produced reports that investigate the state of freedom of expression in Bahrain, only to come up with one common result; things are getting worse. Journalists and human rights defenders have faced military trials, life imprisonment, torture, harassment, and in some cases even death whilst in the custody of the Bahraini authorities.

Despite this, Manama named itself the Capital of Arab Press for 2012 (it has been awarded the status of Capital of Arab Culture for 2012 by the Arab League as part of UNESCO's cultural capitals programme), and recently hosted the Arab Youth Media Forum under the patronage of King Hamad Al-Khalifa. "This choice is the result of the freedom of the press enjoyed by Bahrain thanks to the reform project of His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa as well as IAA attraction of Arab and international media institutions to operate from Bahrain," said Information Affairs Authority President Shaikh Fawaz bin Mohammed Al Khalifa in an interview with the state-run Bahrain News Agency (BNA). Shaikh Fawaz also pointed out that "the King has asserted on many occasions that no journalist will be imprisoned nor will any newspaper or media establishment be closed," adding that "approving a modern press and publication law reflects HM the King's full support to Bahrain's press." The choice seems incongruous at best given the numerous attacks against independent journalists documented throughout 2011 - and that are reportedly still on-going.

Newspapers in Bahrain are mostly state-controlled, with the exception of Al-Wasat whose staff have certainly paid the price for being the only opposition newspaper. On 12 April 2011, Al-Wasat founder Karim Fakhrawi died after spending a week in police custody. Bahrain's official news agency published on its Twitter page the news that Fakhrawi died of kidney failure, however photographs later emerged online showing the body identified as Fakhrawi's covered in extensive cuts and bruises. Mansoor Al-Jamri was forced to resign from his position as Editor-in-Chief after being found guilty by a Manama court on 8 November 2011 of publishing false news and “harming Bahrain's image” along with Managing Editor Walid Noueihed, Local News Director Aqeel Mirza, and Senior Editor Ali Al-Sherify. The four men each had to pay a fine of 1,000 dinars (US$2,650).

Prominent journalist Reem Khalifa (the wife of Mansoor Al-Jamri) was attacked and assaulted by government supporters on 14 July while attending a conference in a Manama hotel. Khalifa later filed a complaint against the attack, however the authorities ignored her complaints and she was instead summoned for questioning by the public prosecutor.

On May 22nd, 2011, Nazeeha Saeed, Bahrain correspondent for France 24 and Radio Monte Carlo Doualiya, was tortured while undergoing interrogation in a police station in the city of Rifa'a. Saeed was accused of spreading lies and “harming Bahrain's image”, and was only released after being forced to sign documents she hadn't been allowed to read in advance.

The crackdown has not been limited to local Bahraini journalists; foreign journalists also received their fair share of mistreatment at the hands of the authorities. New York Times correspondent Nick Kristof and photojournalist Adam Ellick had their equipment damaged when teargas was fired at them on 9 December. The two journalists were detained for 30 minutes in a police car before a senior officer arrived to question the pair before they were released.

Since the beginning of the uprisings many foreign journalists and TV channels have been denied access to Bahrain. One of the few journalists who managed to get into the country was May Ying Welsh, director of the controversial Al-Jazeera English documentary Bahrain: Shouting in the Dark. "Al Jazeera English repeatedly asked the Bahraini authorities for permission to work in the country and we were either denied authorisation or given no response to our requests," said Welsh, speaking to WAN-IFRA. "I went to Bahrain undercover, entering the country as a tourist, because failing to cover an Arab revolution happening on our doorstep was simply not an option." she added. "Al Jazeera did not stop covering the revolution in Egypt when Hosni Mubarak banned our channel, we have not stopped covering Syria, we did not stop our coverage in Gaddafi's Libya, and we did not stop working in Bahrain. We have a responsibility as journalists to do all we reasonably can to cover stories of regional and international importance and to keep our viewers informed."

According to the Bahrain Center for Human Rights' latest report, at least six foreign journalists were denied entry visas to Bahrain in February of this year, suggesting that the authorities are still reluctant to open themselves up to full scrutiny. Amongst them were Gregg Carlstrom from Al-Jazeera, Alex Delmar-Morgan from the Wall Street Journal, Kristen Chick from the Christian Science Monitor and Cara Swift from the BBC.

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