2019 Roundup: Press Freedoms in Bahrain under Gov't Fire, 86 Violations, 21 Verdicts, 16 Summonses & 9 Arrests
2020-01-27 - 3:22 p
Bahrain Mirror (2019 Roundabout): The year 2019 marked a turning point in the Bahraini authorities' targeting of media freedoms, freedom of expression and the right to practice journalism. It is one of the worst years ever compared to all previous years, specifically since the beginning of the political crisis in early 2011. For the first time, "Follow" and "Retweet" of Twitter accounts, deemed by the authorities "inciting and seditious", are being criminalized, making Bahrain the only country in the world to take such a step.
In its weekly meeting on Sunday (October 27, 2019), the Cabinet started discussing a bill regulating the press and media to be referred to the House of Representatives after its adoption. About 25% of the articles of the new law, which contains 85 articles, stipulated the penalties journalists and the institutions they work in will face. The law allocated about 20 articles to the regulation of trials and penalties that range between hefty fines and imprisonment.
This year's summonses and arrests took a new turn by targeting groups known for their loyalty to the regime, after they were previously limited to dissidents, as soon as they issue statements criticizing the performance of state officials or bodies. The governing body completed the crackdown led by the security services by amending the "Protecting Society from Terrorism" law, through which it expanded the prosecution of government critics under flexible definitions of terrorism. It now includes "anyone who by any means promotes, glorifies, justifies, or encourages acts that constitute terrorist activities," while Bahrain's classifications of terrorism are now broad and flexible.
Instead of exercising its role as a legislative body and protecting freedoms, the House of Representatives began to compete with punitive authorities in inciting against Tweeters and journalists and issuing statements demanding holding them accountable.
The entire public space was confiscated and handed over to the Anti-Cybercrime Unit affiliated with the Interior Ministry, which mastered finding tweets of activists and journalists, "interpreting" their words, summoning them for interrogation or arresting them.
It has been a very difficult year during which Bahrain has become a very dangerous security state. The construction of the fear barrier has been completed and the media field has been bulldozed, leaving only one voice in the country; the authority's voice.
It was clear that the criticism had become widespread surpassing the extent to which the Government's silencing and restriction of freedoms reached, expanding to social sectors linked to the state itself. Pro-government writers and tweeters criticized what freedoms in the country had come to.
In this regard, 68 violations were documented. These violations can be classified as direct violations of media, press freedoms, freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of publication and right of access to information. They included 21 judicial verdicts and actions issued against journalists and Tweeters, none of whom have been acquitted except in one case. They also included 16 cases of summonses, 9 arrests and 22 cases of obstruction of employment or threats. In addition, the Bahrain Press Association also recorded 51 cases of summonses and arrests of preachers and eulogy reciters during the religious Ashura season. Here are the details:
Trials and Sentences
The Third Minor Criminal Court issued (January 7, 2019) a 3-month prison term against a defendant, without revealing his identity, stating that he published tweets offensive to the interior ministry on his social media account. A Bahraini court sentenced (January 16, 2019) former Al-Wefaq MP Ali Al-Ashiri to one month in prison and a 500 BD fine due to a tweet he posted in 2018, in which he said that he and his family would boycott the elections. On February 3, 2019, a Bahraini court fined former Bahrain TV presenter Mohammad Al-Shorouqi 2000 BD as compensation for insulting former MP Mohammed Khalid on social media. Another court sentenced a Tweeter, whom it didn't identify, to one year in prison over charges of "insulting figures in Saudi Arabia via social media outlets and inciting hatred against the regime." A first-instance court sentenced (March 13, 2019) opposition leader Ibrahim Sharif to 6 months in prison over a tweet deemed insulting to former Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir, but ordered suspending the execution of the sentence for 3 years from the issuance of verdict and fined him 500 BD. A court fined (July 3, 2019) journalist Jaafar Al-Jamri 100 BD after convicting him of "insulting a civil society member". A court sentenced (July 17, 2019) Bahraini citizen Jassim Mohammad Hassan from Al-Malikiya to 6 months imprisonment over "distributing publications calling for civil disobedience on February 14 anniversary". On August 10, 2019, the Bahraini King pardoned Tweeter Najah Yousef on the occasion of Al-Adha Eid. Najah was serving a 3-year prison term since 2017 for writing on Facebook "No to Formula 1 races on occupied Bahraini territory". On September 17, 2019, the High Appeals Criminal Court refused to release prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab under the Alternative Punishments Law. The Minor Criminal Court issued (November 14, 2019) a one-year prison term against psychologist Dr. Sharifa Siwar and a 200 BD fine and set 500 BD as bail for suspending the execution of the sentence until appeal. She was accused of misusing social media outlets. On September 11, 2019, Bahraini photographer Mousa Abed Ali, who resides in London, was sentenced to 5 years in prison and fined 2000 BD over charges of "forming a terrorist cell and publishing photos of riots". On December 11, 2019, a court issued a life sentence against photographer Hasan Qambar over charges of "joining a terrorist cell, photographing riots and sending the photos abroad."
Summonses and Interrogations
The Anti-Cybercrime Directorate summoned (January 23, 2019) journalist and poet Jaafar Al-Jamri for interrogation over a sarcastic tweet in which he targeted one of "This is Bahrain" Society members, who said that an airplane flew him from Turkey to Tel Aviv without him being aware of it. The Directorate interrogated him again on February 2, 2019 over other tweets he posted on his Twitter account regarding government performance. The Public Prosecution summoned on April 18, 2019 journalist Jaafar Al-Jamri, online activist Abir Al-Jalal, political activist Ibrahim Al-Manai and lawyer Abdullah Hachem and interrogated them over tweets they published on their social media accounts. The Anti-Cybercrime Directorate summoned (June 1, 2019) prominent writer and journalist Akil Swar and interrogated him over a tweet in which he criticized the ministry of interior's statement in which it announced criminalizing following and retweeting accounts deemed "seditious". It also summoned online activist Abdullah Al-Sahli (October 27, 2019) for interrogation over a video he posted in which he criticized President of the Civil Service Bureau Ahmed Al-Zayed for not implementing the Bahrainization plan. The Directorate summoned (November 12, 2019) social and online activist Mohammad Hasan Al-Aradi for interrogation over statements he said during a seminar held by Al-Menbar Society on the fairness of scholarship distribution. The security authorities summoned (December 15, 2019) human rights defender Ibtisam Al-Saegh through a call from Al-Houra Police station; however, she didn't appear at the station and said that the security summonses via phone are considered illegal and not trustworthy. The General Directorate of Anti-Corruption and Economic and Electronic Security summoned (December 25, 2019) journalist Akil Swar for interrogation over a lawsuit filed by the Education Ministry against him over a tweet in which he criticized the ministry's 3-year delay of his son's certificate equivalency.
Remand and Arrests
The Public Prosecution arrested (April 14, 2019) writer Ibrahim Al-Sheikh pending investigation over an article he wrote in "Akhbar Al-Khaleej" newspaper, entitled "Misleading Media and our Military Calamity". It also arrested former MP Mohammed Khalid (April 16, 2019) over posting a tweet in which he stood in solidarity with Ibrahim Al-Sheikh, accusing him of "spreading false news". The Public Prosecution arrested lawyer Abdullah Hachem (May 15, 2019) over charges of "exploiting his personal account to spread baseless and false news that would harm public order". Security officers affiliated with the interior ministry arrested (July 31, 2019) member of the Unitary National Democratic Assemblage (Al-Wahdawi society), Ali Jassim, over charges of "insulting the Divine through a social media site (Instagram)".
Hindering Practice of Work and Threats
The Justice Ministry prevented (March 7, 2019) the Nationalist Democratic Assembly from holding a seminar at the party's headquarters on the March uprising that took place in 1965, claiming that the said seminar is considered a violation of the law, given that the speaker was a former official in the dissolved Wa'ad Society. The Foreign Affairs, Defense and National Security Committee of the Bahraini House of Representatives targeted on April 11, 2019 Akbar Al-Khaleej newspaper journalist Ibrahim Al-Sheikh for what it called "an attack on Bahrain's military involved in the Yemen war," calling on the Public Prosecution to take legal measures against him. 35 Bahraini MPs signed (April 13, 2019) a statement calling on justice system agencies to "play their part in holding accountable those who break the law, threaten civil peace and spread lies, fabrications and fabricated news on social media outlets." The Civil Service Bureau announced on May 1, 2019 holding meetings with the Information Affairs Authority to enforce regulations on public sector employees regarding their usage of social media outlets. The Bahraini Interior Ministry issued a statement (May 19, 2019) accusing human rights activist Yousef Al-Muhafda and online activist Hassan Abdulnabi of running the "Na'eb Ta'eb" Twitter account, known for publishing leaked news about the conflict between wings inside the ruling Bahraini family. The Ministry of Interior accused the head of the Bahrain Press Association Adel Marzouq of "spreading sedition" over tweets he posted questioning the Prime Minister's status and mentioning that there were schemes to dismiss him. On May 22, 2019, the King approved an amendment to the "Protecting Society from Terrorism" law, which expanded the range of prosecution and punishment of perpetrators on social media. Bahrain's Interior Ministry threatened (May 22, 2019) citizens and residents with punishment for following accounts they deemed "inciting and seditious" and retweeting anything from such accounts. The Interior Ministry sent short text messages (May 30, 2019) to all registered Bahraini numbers threatening anyone who follows accounts "linked to terrorism" and said that legal action will be taken against them. The Interior Ministry issued (June 1, 2019) a statement reiterating its threats to citizens who retweet what such inflammatory accounts post and said that it will hold them accountable. Threats made by the King's son Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa on his private Instagram account (July 2, 2019) led to the removal of the head of the sports section of local "Al-Ayyam" newspaper, Aqil Sayed, and the dismissal of sports journalist, Abdullah Al-Babtain, after the newspaper published a public poll revealing the dissatisfaction of the sports sector with the performance of Sports Minister Ayman Al-Muayed. A ruling family member, Maha Al Khalifa, posted on her social media account (July 6, 2019) a threat to participants in Al-Jazeera's "Players with Fire" film (July 14, 2019), whom she described as "traitors". On July 22, 2019, "High Orders" prevented Akhbar Al-Khaleej's writer Ibrahim Al-Sheikh from continuing to publish his weekly column in the paper. On July 26, 2019, photographer Mousa Abdul Ali was beaten and tortured by Bahraini Embassy staff in London, who shoved a wet cloth in his mouth and tied his hands from behind after he held a sit-in on the roof of the embassy in protest against the Bahraini authorities' intention to carry out two death penalties against dissidents.
The Information Affairs Authority suspended in August 2019 the website of "Manama Voice" news platform, which is headed by Bahraini journalist Hani Al-Fardan, without explanation. Bahrain International Airport security authorities prevented (November 15, 2019) American journalist Matthew Cassel from entering Bahrain and deported him on an airplane to another destination. The Political Societies Affairs Authority of the Ministry of Justice cancelled on December 22, 2019 a seminar at Al-Wahdawi Society's headquarters that was to be held on December 23, 2019, entitled "The Future of the Gulf Cooperation Council," during which well-known journalist Ali Saleh was scheduled to speak, under the pretext that the seminar was going to tackle the internal affairs of other countries and include the participation of a member of a dissolved political society.
*Published in Cooperation with Bahrain Press Association