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September 15, 2015

Still Little Press Freedom in Bahrain

By Anita Dhanvanthari 

In early 2011, Bahraini citizens took to the streets in large peaceful protests calling for democracy. Shias and Sunnis came together in the Sunni-ruled, Shia-majority island to call for reform of the oppressive monarchy.

The government’s security forces responded violently. Civilians were attacked with tear gas and gunfire. The government targeted Shia communities, vandalized neighborhoods, and bulldozed mosques.

During the uprising the government jailed local journalists and denied foreign journalists to access the country. The New York Times reported, “Bahraini authorities helped to limit news coverage of the crackdown by blocking journalists from entering the country and expelling some who were already there.” Reuters’ Bahrain correspondent, Frederik Richter was expelled from Bahrain despite being in the country since 2008. ABC News reporter Miguel Marquez was badly beaten at Pearl Square during the government’s efforts to clear out protestors from the area.

The U.S. government condemned Bahrain’s actions and members of Congress urged the President to impose a ban on security assistance to Bahrain until it demonstrated meaningful progress on the human rights situation.

This June, the U.S. State Department lifted that ban, claiming: “the government of Bahrain has made some meaningful progress on human rights reforms and reconciliation.” But this contradicts its own Human Rights Report for 2014 on Bahrain. The entry offers a scathing account of continuing instances of detainment, torture, and suppression of opposition voices.

Following the uprising, the king commissioned a group of independent experts to compile a report on the human rights abuses committed. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) released a report following their thorough investigation of those events.

A key recommendation, so far unimplemented, is reform of the country’s media.  

The BICI report identifies the connection between the government’s suppression of media and the destabilization of civil society: “The continuing failure to provide opposition groups with an adequate voice in the national media risks further polarizing the political and ethnic divide in Bahrain. The lack of access to mainstream media creates frustration within opposition groups.”

The report states that many journalists “were arrested for reporting on the events of February/March 2011. Two journalists died while in the custody of the police or the NSA.” It also mentions two other journalists who were arrested and detained, one reporting for France 24 and Monte Carlo Radio and the other reporting for the German News Agency and European Press Photo Agency. The report even includes a section titled: “Allegations of mistreatment of foreign journalists.”

Although King Hamad both accepted the BICI recommendations and committed to implementing them, four years later the recommendations are largely unfulfilled.

Recommendation 1724(c) asks the Bahraini government “To undertake appropriate measures including legislative measures to prevent incitement to violence, hatred, sectarianism and other forms of incitement which lead to the violation of internationally protected human rights, irrespective of whether the source is public or private.”

The BICI Follow Up Unit wrote in its latest report, “Bahrain’s media environment has a reputation as one of the most liberal in the Middle East and North Africa region…Nevertheless, Bahrain has acknowledged that, in recent years, the authorities have been criticized for the conduct of state-owned media and the approach sometimes taken to the regulation of non-state media actors.”

In 2013, the State Department produced a report tracking the Bahraini government’s implementation of the BICI recommendations thus far. It states, “To foster an environment that recognizes freedom of expression and promotes dialogue, additional efforts can be made moving forward to ensure individuals are no longer charged nor detained in cases relating to peaceful political expression and free speech. We are urging the Government of Bahrain to recognize freedom of expression and promote dialogue.”

Currently, radio and television broadcasts are all state-controlled by the Bahrain Radio and Television Corporation.

Bahrain’s lack of press freedoms will only work against the government, increasing the rift between the rulers and the opposition groups. Unless it supports journalists and civil society, Bahrain cannot expect any democratic stability in its future and will face censure from members of Congress unhappy at the lack of reform.

Last week, Representatives McGovern (D-MA), Pitts (R-PA), and Johnson (D-GA) introduced H.R. 3445, legislation to implement a ban on arms sales to Bahrain. Last month, Senators Wyden (D-OR) and Rubio (R-FL) introduced the same legislation (Bill S.2009) in the Senate. Known as the “BICI Accountability Act of 2015,” this bipartisan legislation calls on the U.S. government to halt sales and transfers of weapons to the government of Bahrain until it “has fully implemented all 26 recommendations set forth in the 2011 Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report.”