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The press law – decree-law no. 47 — enacted by the government in 2002 injected new vitality into the print media and led to the creation of new titles. Prison sentences for journalists were abolished.
However, the authorities have been using the criminal code to prosecute journalists, who have resorted to censoring themselves. The decree-law authorizes the ministry of information and culture to order the closure, without a court hearing, of any publication or website that “undermines the government, the official religion of the state, public morals or any faith in a manner likely to disturb the peace”.
The state retains a monopoly in radio and television, although 99 percent of the population has a dish antenna.
Against this background, the Internet provides a welcome free space for journalists, although one that is increasingly monitored.
The Bahrain Telecommunications Company, of which the state is one of the biggest shareholders, officially exercises censorship of pages that incite violence or national discord, or are “pornographic in character”. In practice, the sites of many national and international NGOs are made inaccessible.
The information ministry regularly publishes a list of banned websites. In January 2009, the newly appointed information and culture minister, Sheikha May bint Ibrahim Al-Khalifa, sent a circular to Internet service providers asking them to censor websites on the government’s blacklist.
Since then, some sites that can be used to bypass censorship have also been made inaccessible. That means Web users are unable to view the pages of some groups on the Facebook social networking site that are seen as critical of the government’s actions, as well as other sites where politics or human rights topics are discussed. Since the protest movement began in 14 February, Bahraini authorities have done everything in their power to control the flow of information about protest rallies and the excesses committed by the security forces, using a formidable armoury of measures – the interrogation and expulsion of foreign journalists, of whom some find themselves facing serious problems obtaining visas, intimidation of those willing to be interviewed by the foreign media, harassment of those who campaign for freedom of expression, arrests of photographers, bloggers and netizens, one of whom died in detention, prosecution of free speech activists, forced resignations of journalists working for the main opposition newspaper who are then summoned before the public prosecutor, a ban on the reporting of investigations being carried out by the military prosecutor for reasons of national security etc.
In this way, the authorities have managed to impose a media blackout on the unrest.
At the same time, they have used official and compliant media to conduct a propaganda campaign against the main leaders of the protest movement, calling them traitors or terrorists. Publication of the opposition newspaper Al-Wasat was suspended for 24 hours in early April. Its three senior editors, Mansour Al-Jamari, Walid Nouihid, and Aqil Mirza, were forced to resign. Two Iraqi journalists who worked for it were expelled.
Karim Fakhrawi, a founder of the newspaper and a member of its board, was taken in for questioning and died in custody a week later. The exact cause of his death has yet to be established.
The three editors, Al-Jamari, Nouihid and Mirza appeared before the superior criminal court and were fined on 11 October for publishing false and misleading news that undermined the country’s image and reputation abroad. Meanwhile, the newspaper’s board reinstated Al-Jamari as editor.
A state of emergency imposed on 15 March was lifted on 1 June. The start of a national dialogue in early July eased tension slightly but many journalists originally prosecuted under military jurisdiction have had their cases referred to civilian courts. Some convictions handed down before the start of the national dialogue have recently been reviewed.
However, on 27 September a special court, on appeal, upheld the prison sentences imposed on 14 Shi’ite dissidents, among them the blogger Abduljalil Al-Singace, who was given a life sentence. They were found guilty on 22 June of creating and running a terrorist group that aimed to change the constitution and the monarchy by force, of having contact with a foreign terrorist group acting in the interests of a foreign power and carrying out hostile acts in the kingdom, and of raising funds for this group.
Seven other activists found guilty in absentia by the lower court, including the blogger Ali Abdulemam who received a 15-year prison sentence, were refused the right of appeal unless they surrender to the authorities.
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