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Press freedom in Bahrain in a dismal state

Demonstrators protesting Ahmed Humaidan's detention
Demonstrators protesting Ahmed Humaidan's detention


Violations against the freedom of the press in Bahrain are ongoing, and the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) is seriously concerned about reports of attacks against journalists and the media in general. Tomorrow, May 3 2013, we will commemorate World Press Freedom day, to raise awareness regarding the importance of freedom of the press and to remind governments of their duty to respect and uphold the right to freedom of expression.

Despite King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa's pledge to uphold press freedom and reform, conditions over the last year have not improved.

Instead, several journalists and bloggers in Bahrain have been harassed, assaulted, imprisoned, and allegedly tortured as a result of their work; journalists in the proximity of pro-democracy demonstrations were regularly targeted by security forces. BCHR has compiled a list of violations that have occurred against the media over the course of the last year.

Arrest and torture of Journalists

On 16 May, Ahmed Radhi, a freelance journalist and blogger, was arrested without a warrant by security forces at 4 a.m. after they broke down his door, for criticizing a proposed union of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in interviews he gave to BBC Arabic Radio and the London-based exile television station, Lulu TV. He was reportedly tortured, insulted, and held incommunicado for 10 days after his arrest. Ahmed's lawyer was not allowed to meet with him until the first week of June, nor was she told what Ahmed was accused of.

BCHR received a letter written by Ahmed Radhi in which he stated that he was beaten on his head and chest by security forces. He was thrown on a cold and hard floor, handcuffed with his hands behind his back and blindfolded for 48 hours. Ahmed was released on 20 September 2012 without a trial.

On 29 December, renowned and award-winning photographer, Ahmed Humaidan, was kidnapped by 15 security officers in civilian clothing from a shopping mall in Bahrain and arrested. According to Humaidan's family, he was subjected to psychological torture. He was forced to stand up for hours while being handcuffed and blindfolded in a very cold room, holding an unknown object which interrogators told him was a timed bomb set to explode.

Humaidan is charged, along with a group of over 30 persons, of burning the Sitra police station. However it is believed that Humaidan, who is still in detention, was targeted because of the photographs he takes of the ongoing Bahraini protests.

Professional photojournalists Mazen Mahdi for EPA, Hasan Jamali for AP, and Mohamed AlShaikh for AFP were detained by police officers on 14 February 2013 while they were in Daih to cover the death of a teenager who was shot by police. There were ongoing protests in the area. The three photojournalists were kept on the side of the road, prevented from doing their work, and were eventually told that they must leave. They were then put in a police car and taken to a police station where they were released. Similar incidents of brief arrests are common and seem to aim at hindering the journalists' ability to fully cover events.

Photojournalist Ammar AbdulRasool (29-years-old) was held under arrest for several hours at a checkpoint while he was on his way to cover the funeral of a teenager killed in Daih, on 16 February. He was taken to Isa town's police station and interrogated. He was then released later in the day after the events (funeral/protest/attacks) were over. AbdulRasool is an award winning photojournalist.

Archive photo of police aiming to shoot journalist Mazen Mahdi
Archive photo of police aiming to shoot journalist Mazen Mahdi


Arrests and trials of online users

In the past year, 13 Twitter users were arrested, detained, and put on trial for their tweets. Five of them have already been sentenced to periods ranging from one to six months for “defaming the king via Twitter”, six others including a 17-year-old boy are still on trial while in detention for the same charges.

Those sentenced for defaming the king on Twitter:

  • Abdullah Alhashemi was sentenced to six months in prison (1 November 2012);
  • Salman Darwish was sentenced to one month in prison (5 November 2012);
  • Ali Mohamed Watheqi was sentenced to four months in prison (5 November 2012);
  • Ali Al-Haiki was sentenced to four months in prison on a lèse-majesté charge for messages he posted on Twitter (13 November 2012);
  • A fifth online user was sentenced to four months in prison for the same charges (11 Dec 2012).

Those still on trial while in detention, charged with defaming the king via Twitter:

Ali Faisal Al-Shufa (17), Hassan Abdali Isa (33), Mohsen Abdali Isa (26), Ammar Makki Mohammed Al-Aali (36), and Mahmood Abdul-Majeed Abdulla Al-Jamri (34) were arrested on 12 March at dawn, while Mahdi Ebrahim Al-Basri (25) was arrested the day before. Al-Basri's relatives confirmed to the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights (BYSHR) that the interior of his house was destroyed and that those present were verbally abused. He also faced mistreatment in the Criminal Investigations Department (CID). Al-Basri is a practicing lawyer.

On 9 July 2012, Nabeel Rajab, president of BCHR and director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), was sentenced to three months in prison and arrested from his house on charges of “libeling the citizens of the town of Muharraq over Twitter”, in relation to statements he made calling for the Prime Minister to step down, and discussing his visit to the island of Muharraq. Though he was acquitted of the charges at the appeals court, he remains in detention serving a two year sentence on charges of participating in demonstrations and calling for people to gather over social media.

On 17 December, Said Yousif Al-Muhafdhah, a human rights defender and the acting vice president and head of the documentation unit at BCHR, was arrested while monitoring a protest in Manama and tweeting about the attacks on protesters and the violations to their rights. He was charged with “disseminating false news over Twitter” and he remained in detention for a month. Though the court acquitted him of the charges on 11 March 2013, the public prosecution has appealed against the acquittal.

Denial of Access

On 14 July 2012, Bahrain deported U.S. filmmaker Jen Marlowe, after she was briefly detained and questioned before being flown to Jordan. The authorities accused her of falsifying her visa application and shooting a documentary without permission.

Nick Kristoff was denied entry at the country's border on 20 December 2012 when he was informed that he is on a 'black list'. The two-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist has been highly critical of the Bahraini authorities in his reporting. During his last visit to Bahrain in December 2012 he was subjected to a tear gas attack and was briefly detained along with his accompanying cameraman.

Habiba Hamid reported that she was interrogated for five hours at Bahrain's airport on 11 February 2013, then denied entry to Bahrain, although she was not coming to report on the political situation. The authorities checked her Twitter feed which included comments on Bahrain. They wanted her to apply for a visa through the Ministry of Information first, before coming to Bahrain.

On 19 April 2013, an ITV News channel team was stopped while filiming in Bahrain and its members were taken to a local police station where they were asked to leave Bahrain, despite having an approved visa by the Bahraini authorities. The decision of deporting them came after the news channel issued a report critical of the government the night before.

Impunity for Abusers

After a year long trial, all five police officers that severely beat blogger Zakariya Al-Asheeri to death in April 2011, were acquitted on 5 March 2013. Al-Asheeri, moderator of the online forum, was arrested on the 2 April 2011 on charges of inciting hatred, publishing false news, promoting sectarianism and calling for the overthrow of the regime via e-forums. He was announced dead in custody eight days later. His body was handed over to his family covered with the marks of torture.

On 22 October, female police officer Sara al-Moosa was acquitted of torturing France 24 correspondent Nazeeha Saeed after a series of adjournments that lasted for more than a year.

In May 2011, at Riffa police station, Saeed was blindfolded, kicked, punched, and slapped. Her hair was pulled, she was whipped with plastic tubing, had a shoe forced into her mouth and her head dunked into a toilet. An unknown, caustic liquid said to be urine was poured onto her face, she was repeatedly insulted and mentally abused and the authorities demanded that she make a false confession. Three independent medical reports, two of which were from government doctors, corroborate Saeed's account of the torture she suffered while in custody. While Saeed was able to identify five of her attackers, only one female police officer, Sara al-Moosa, was prosecuted and thereafter acquitted.

More than one year has passed since citizen journalist and cameraman, Ahmed Ismael (22) was shot dead on 31 March 2012 while covering a peaceful protest in Salmabad which was suppressed by security forces accompanied by armed men in a civilian car who were shooting live rounds at protesters. To date, no one has been held accountable for this murder.

Threats and harrasments

On 13 November, a Manama appeals court upheld journalist Reem Khalifa's conviction on a trumped-up charge of physically attacking two women doctors and insulting a third after a Manama news conference in July 2011, she will have to pay a fine of 100 BD (210 euros) and a total of 500 BD in compensation to the doctors. The journalist has filed a complaint against her attackers, however the case was put on-hold at the public prosecution.

In another incident, a journalist was assaulted by a security patrol on 29 June. She was standing near the building of AL-Wasat newspaper, which is situated near the site of a demonstration. A security patrol suddenly stopped and one police officer stepped out and after watching her for a moment, he took a stun grenade out of his pocket and shot directly at her.

On 23 November, the public prosecution summoned lawyer Manar Maki and interrogated her on the background of a statement she gave to the satellite channel Alalam on 16 November 2012 about the torture of her detained client Adnan Almansi who was reportedly subjected to severe physical torture, including sexual assaults. Instead of investigating the allegation of torture, the prosecution seems to putting pressure on lawyers who expose violations to the media.

Where is Ali Abdelemam?

It's been two years since the disappearance of the prominent Bahraini blogger Ali Abdulemam on 17 March 2011. He was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison by a military court on 22 June 2011 for allegedly "belonging to terrorist organizations and trying to overthrow the government". Abdulemam is the owner of the Bahraini forum where views critical of the government are regularly expressed and where the first calls to protest on 14 February 2011 emerged. He was previously detained from September 2010 to February 2011 and was subjected to torture during that period. His whereabouts remain unknown to this today.

BCHR demands that the Bahraini authorities show full respect for the freedom of the press in Bahrain. Ordinary citizens should be allowed to peacefully and freely express themselves on the Internet, and journalists should be able to report objectively on the government without fear of reprisals. The first step to reform the government's relationship with the media is through accountability, and the figures responsible for the culture of impunity towards the media must be brought to justice.

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