In Bahrain, the first half of 2022 witnessed a number of violations against journalists and media content producers on the Internet. The number of cases that the Bahrain Press Association (BPA) was able to document and verify through its regular monitoring of harassment and targeting within the scope of freedom of expression and freedom of the press reached about 15 cases. Thus, the number of documented acts of infringement of freedom of expression since the February 2011 uprisings up until June 2022 rose to about 1770 violations.
The 15 observed violations included 5 cases of interrogation and arrest, 3 legal proceedings, and 7 cases of abuse by means of denial of medical treatment, phone hacking, and threatening. The most prominent charges brought against the interrogated, detainees, or those convicted in court were “spreading false news”, “libel and slander”, “criticizing the Parliament”, “insulting and defaming public figures” and “criticizing an Umayyad Caliph”.
The indicated violations remained at the same level since last year, when the total number of cases also reached 15. As a matter of fact, the mentioned figures represent a noticeable decrease in the number of violations compared to previous years. However, this does not mean easing the stifling policies or the security grip. Rather, it indicates citizens’ “self-censorship” and the continued withdrawal from engaging in public discussions under their real names. Alternatively, they began using less critical language as much as possible or wrapping it in general terms.
The repressive experience Bahrainis have gone through over the past decade represented a kind of public reprogramming whereby people became aware of the safe zones where they can express their opinions without being exposed to the security authorities.
Therefore, the decrease in the rates of recorded violations did not mean an increase in freedom of expression or media freedoms, for example. On the contrary, the outcry this time came from Akhbar Al Khaleej newspaper—the oldest newspaper in Bahrain which is known for its pro-state orientation. Its editor-in-chief, Anwar Abdel Rahman, revealed in an editorial that received a wide local response about the bitter reality that the local press is going through in light of the constant harassment and the shrinking of the margin of freedom to its lowest point.
This is clearly evident, for example, in the normalization agreements that Bahrain signed with Israel. Although it received a widespread popular rejection, this denunciation did not appear in any way in the local media because it is not allowed.
There was, and still is, great hope for change with the appointment of a new Prime Minister with broad powers. Recently, the government structure that the Crown Prince and Prime Minister, Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, formed with his team brought wide acclaim. However, this has not yet been reflected in any way in the reality of the press, media or freedoms in general.
Today, Bahrain ranks among the lowest international indicators on freedom of expression and political freedoms. It came the last of the six Arab Gulf states in the annual press freedom index issued by Reporters Without Borders this year. Freedom House Organization also continued to classify Bahrain as a “repressive, not free country” in its civil and political rights and liberties index.
The following is a summary of the violations that occurred during the first half of 2022:
Interrogations and Arrests
The Cybercrime Directorate summoned (5 February 2022) the President of Altajdeed Cultural and Social Society Jalal Al-Qassab, for interrogation regarding the content of lectures he gave on the Association’s YouTube account. However, he was released on the same day.
The Public Prosecution interrogated (16 February 2022) journalist Mohammed al-Ghasra, director of the “Delmon Post” website on charges of “spreading false news about a meeting for representatives of a number of associations with a foreign agency.”
The Public Prosecution summoned (19 May 2022) lawyer Abdullah Hashem for interrogation on charges of “libel and slander” following a complaint filed against him by the former correspondent of the Saudi “Al-Arabiya” TV channel, Muhammad Abdul-Razzaq Muhammad Ismail al-Zoba’i, known as “Muhammad al-Arab”, where the case was transferred to the court.
The Cybercrime Directorate summoned (29 June 2022) Tweeter A.N. for interrogation about some opinions she expressed on Twitter criticising the performance of parliament members.
The Cybercrime Directorate announced (1 January 2022) taking legal proceedings-which it did not specify-against psychiatrist Dr. Sharifa Swar on charges of “insulting and defaming public figures”. In a seminar in London, Dr. Swar mentioned names of prominent officials who, she claimed, are involved in selling “Larica” pills (used as illegal drugs) to girls’ schools.
In a positive step, the execution judge approved (25 January 2021) the conditional release of the photographer Ahmed Humaidan within the Alternative Penal Code, 11 months before the end of his 10-year sentence. The alternative punishment has not been announced yet.
A Bahraini court sentenced (17 March 2022) the Shiite cleric Sheikh Muhammad al-Mady to one year in prison for speaking inappropriately about the Umayyad ruler Muawiyah bin Abi Sufyan.
Mistreatment and Other Infringements
Detainees in Jaw Central Prison reported (7 January 2022) deteriorated health of the photographer, Yasser Ahmed, who suffered from dizziness and was unable to move. The prison’s administration refused to transfer him to the hospital or have a specialist check him.
An investigation by the Irish “Front Line Defenders” organization revealed (17 January 2022) that the phone of human rights defender Ibtisam Al-Saegh was hacked by the Israeli “Pegasus” software at least 8 times during the year 2019.
Pro-government local newspapers launched (9 February 2022) an organized campaign of incitement against a group of civil society figures, including Ahmed Al-Khuzaie, Osama Al-Baharna, Hussein Al-Rabie and Huda Al-Mahmoud, for meeting with the new US ambassador Steven Bondy at his home and discussing topics pertaining to political participation and human rights.
The Ministry of Labor and Social Development issued (18 February 2022) a warning circular calling on NGOs and civil society associations with social and philanthropic goals “not to involve in politics, observe public order and morals, and demonstrate abidance in all their activities by not compromising the integrity of the state or the formation of government or its social system.”
A number of detained political leaders issued (4 March 2022) an urgent appeal to the Secretary-General of the United Nations and the High Commissioner for Human Rights, requesting their immediate intervention to save the life of the academic Dr. Abdul-Jalil Al-Singace, the owner of the “Al-Fasilah” blog, who went on a hunger strike 250 days ago (at the time of the statement’s release) to protest the confiscation of his research by the prison’s administration.
The American organization “Freedom House” classified (4 March 2022) Bahrain as a “repressive, not free country”, giving it only 12 points out of 100 points in the civil and political rights and freedoms index.
Bahrain (3 May 2022) ranked last among the six Arab Gulf states in the annual press freedom index issued by Reporters Without Borders on the World Press Freedom Day. Globally, it ranked 167th out of 180 countries.
The Bahrain Press Association encourages the Prime Minister to reconsider the government’s proposed approach to the press, media freedoms and freedom of expression, and place it among the priorities of his governing team. The BPA believes that it is the right time to overcome this divide and adopt an open approach that includes:
- Immediate and unconditional release of all photographers, media professionals, and activists detained for practicing their work or exercising their right to freedom of expression.
- Stop arbitrary prosecutions and arrests and judicial trials on charges like “misusing social media”, “spreading false news” and “criticising government bodies.”
- Secure freedoms of media and the press, and reconsidering the work priorities of the Anti-Corruption and Economic and Electronic Security Administration, especially with regard to its powers.
- Put an end to the authority’s monopoly of the television, radio and print media, and enable the voice of opposition in the media—including reauthorizing the publication of Al-Wasat newspaper.
- Call on the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression to schedule an urgent visit to Bahrain.