تقييم لحرية التعبير في البحرين
22 أغسطس 2005م


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CAPSULE REPORT: EOHR review of free expression situation in Bahrain



Country/Topic: Bahrain
Date: 22 August 2005
Source: Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR)
Person(s):
Target(s):
Type(s) of violation(s):
Urgency: Bulletin
(EOHR/IFEX) - The following is a 17 August 2005 EOHR capsule report:


During the past year, Bahrain has witnessed a notable escalation in the public demand for political and social reform. Public protests, rallies, publications and internet-based forums (blogs) have been the clearest manifestation of this movement.

Government tolerance of criticism has worn increasingly thin, with violent incidents on the rise. The past year put this to the test several times, with journalists, bloggers, NGOs and opposition groups often falling prey to tighter government restrictions, and more worrying still, increasingly aggressive measures, including the use of force against protesters.

The earliest incident was the dissolution of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) in September 2004 following allegations it had violated Bahrain's associations' law. According to Abdul Hadi Khawaja, director of BCHR, the centre was dissolved following allegations it had "interfered in political affairs" and "[interfered] in the affairs of a neighbouring country" as it had taken part in a petition calling for Kuwaiti women's political rights. Under Bahrain's associations' law, NGOs may not take part in such activities. Khawaja attributes the dissolution of the BCHR to a panel discussion on the economic situation in Bahrain and the spread of corruption in which he criticised the Bahraini Prime Minister, after which he was arrested and detained for eight weeks, and the BCHR dissolved. A complaint filed by the BCHR board is still being heard in their attempt to alleviate the authorities' administrative decision dissolving the centre.

More recently, the escalation of protests and rallies in Bahrain has unleashed a strong response from the authorities and security forces. Several protests and sit-ins were organised by the Association for Suitable Housing and the Committee for the Unemployed in June and July (2005). The harshest response was on 15 July when 30 out of 50 protesters were arrested and several others wounded and hospitalised. BCHR's Nabeel Rajab was amongst those arrested, while Khawaja was beaten.

According to protesters, the authorities exercised excessive use of force against the 15 July protestors because it was organised to end in a sit-in at Manama's Al-Refa' district, where the royal family and the king reside. According to Bahraini activists, the excessive use of violence was a direct message to the other political associations which organise much larger rallies yet enjoy a wider margin of manoeuvre. Khawaja says it was a "clear message to the Bahraini people, opposition groups and civil society."

Protests and rallies organised by Bahrain's four major political associations, the Islamic National Accord Association (INAA), National Democratic Action Association (NDAA), Nationalist Democratic Rally (NDR) and the Islamic Action Association (IAA) have, according to analysts, been relatively immune to the use of force due to the large number of participants and the blessing of Bahrain's clergymen. However, the organisers are put under immense pressure to bring an end to public rallies demanding constitutional reforms. Bahraini Information Minister and State Minister for Foreign Affairs Muhammad Abdul Ghaffar publicly stated that the organisers of rallies and protests will face legal measures for organising "an unlawful demonstration."

While making allegations of "causing harm to people" and organising events that "lead to conflicts, sectarianism and sedition in society," the government of Bahrain has moved to restrict the right to express political, social and economic opinions through peaceful assembly. The government recently imposed a ban on rallies and protests during the upcoming US-sponsored "Forum of the Future" held in Bahrain, which brings together the G8 group with delegations from the region to discuss reforms in the Greater Middle East in November.

"Such activities are against the spirit of the forum itself . . . which is focused on issues of the greater Middle East, and is not a forum for local issues" was foreign minister Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Mubarak al-Khalifa's explanation of why the ban was imposed. The ban follows a dispute which broke out between the authorities and the country's political associations, the latter claiming Bahraini law requires prior notification of rallies and protests while the authorities assert the need to apply for, and be granted, permission for such events.

Violations of media freedom also persist in Bahrain. Journalists, newspapers and internet-based forum moderators and bloggers faced mounting restrictions both from the authorities and from various sectors of the society itself.

Such violations during the past six months have included the detention and arrest of journalists and bloggers. This included, amongst others, the arrest of Ali Abdul Imam, moderator of Bahrain Online (http://www.bahrainonline.org), its webmasters Mohammed Al-Musavi, and Hussein Yousef, who have been arrested several times during the past six months. International concern mounted when they staged a hunger-strike in March 2005, demanding better prison conditions in Manama's notorious Al Hoora police station and reclassification as prisoners of conscience rather than ordinary prisoners.

This was followed by a decree from the Ministry of Information instructing Bahraini website and blog moderators to register their sites with the Ministry and assume responsibility for materials published on them within a period of three months. This was deemed "a violation of freedom of opinion and restriction of freedom of expression" according to Bahraini activists. Khawaja claimed this was a way to censor internet-based forums and discussions even if run by Bahrain nationals from abroad.

This follows the passing of Press Law 47 [2002], which provided the framework for the arrest of dozens of journalists and editors-in-chief, which triggered a culture of self-censorship amongst Bahraini newspapers and magazines. In interviews with EOHR, journalists also expressed anger at what they called "direct orders" they and their editors-in-chief allegedly receive from the Ministry of Information in the form of written letters and phone calls guiding them on what to publish and what to censor.

Bahrain's Press Law 47 amended previous laws -- adding more restrictions on freedom of expression including prohibiting "defamation of the person of the king", which has been used, according to activists in Bahrain, to censor all forms of criticism addressing the king and the royal family. The law also introduced harsher penalties on press crimes.

Threats and restrictions on freedom of the press are not restricted to government practices in Bahrain. Following the June 2005 Iranian elections, local newspapers published articles and cartoons reflecting on the results of the elections. In one instance, Bahraini newspaper "Al-Ayam" published a cartoon depicting Iran's supreme leader manipulating election results. With Ayatollah Khamenai's dual role as a supreme political and religious leader, many Shiites in Bahrain took offence at the cartoon and staged sit-ins and protests at the newspaper's offices throughout the country. This was topped by the Shiite cleric, Seyyid Aqeel Al-Musavi, whose letter to Isa Al-Shayeji, editor-in-chief of "Al-Ayam" and president of the Bahrain Journalists' Association, condemned the cartoon as a promotion of sectarianism. The letter was considered a threat by some, and was deemed a Rushdie-style fatwa comparable with the 1980s fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini against the British author Salman Rushdie.

The letter and the protests against Al-Ayam's articles and cartoons drew attention from human rights and freedom of expression activists worldwide. However, local activists claim the move is a random effort by Khamenai loyalists and does not reflect any organised social or religious restriction on freedom of expression and press freedom. Nonetheless, they are a clear threat to the right to criticise political and religious figures in public.