Sabt: The Journalists’ Society is not a Policeman!

Is It a Battle for the Freedom of the Press?

The last month witnessed two controversial cases relating to the freedom of the press which involved many parties including the press, Government and judiciary - all of which are part of the problem. It is unlikely that the problem in Bahrain is a result of a lack or decrease in the margin of press freedom, nor can it be attributed to the Government’s intention to curb the freedom of journalists. However, this does not hide the fact that the Bahraini journalists are aware of the possibility of any decrease in the margin of freedom and any increase in the Government’s pressure on journalists, especially in the absence of a law that regulates journalism. This law is still waiting to be discussed, amended and adopted by the House of Representatives.

The problem can be determined by looking at three factors that have contributed in creating it:

Firstly: The absence of any regulatory law for the press and private media whether it is electronic, published or broadcasted. Two parties are responsible for the delay: the Government on one hand, which delayed forwarding the bill to the Parliament in due time, and the House of Representatives which failed to prioritize the new bill.

Secondly: This relates to the relationship between the Government and the media - both sides are also responsible for the current situation. Clearly there is a small minority within the Government that cannot bear the media criticism against ministries, institutions and public figures. Moreover, there are three parties within the Government, although their sizes are unknown yet, with different views on the bill. These include a party that is inclined to decrease the freedom of the press; one can argue that this party represents a minority, which is unlikely to succeed or have any effect in the foreseeable future on the passing of the new bill. There is also another party which leans towards maintaining the status quo of press freedom. This represents a pragmatic approach because the current situation gives journalists freedoms in certain areas and restricts them in others. There is also a third party which represents a minority as well. This party supports the expansion of the margin of press freedom beyond its current level. However, the will of the Government will face that of the House of Representatives, which leans towards increasing the margin of freedom- according to public statements by some MPs.

As for journalists in general, there is a strong inclination – especially with the delay of passing the bill - towards bypassing the current law as it includes a fair amount of limitations and obstacles and is therefore the basis for the restrictions that take place currently. It is as though these journalists have had enough of the current situation and want to push aside what is perceived to be the red lines. This is in order to expand the margin of freedom on the ground before the law becomes a reality and binding. On the other hand, there are some officials who would like to enforce the current law in order to hold back the journalists or to stop what they perceive as an attack against them that needs to be stopped. The attempt to stop such attacks has manifested in the form of a recent increase in filing legal suits against some journalists - an action which is considered to be legitimate by the officials.

Thirdly: This relates to the legal and judicial procedures regarding cases of media breaches. Until now, there is a wide and comprehensive protest from journalists against the trial of journalists under the Criminal Law. Moreover, there are some ambiguities regarding the nature of the legal procedures of the breaches as demonstrated by the case of the journalist Hussain Al Sabt, which caused an obvious problem. The new press law is supposed to solve this problem by determining the mechanisms needed and/or through the application of the rules of the Media Ethics Charter - whose articles are being discussed by the Journalists’ Society.

Hussain Al Sabt

Between the Public Prosecutor and
Al-Waqt Newspaper

Al-Waqt newspaper has started a legal battle with the Public Prosecutor on the ground of summoning one of its journalists (Hussain Al Sabt) for an interrogation regarding a published piece of news and referring the case to the court. On 28 June, Al-Waqt stated that the Public Prosecutor’s Office is attempting to restrict the freedom of the press and described its actions as ‘surprising’ adding that it ‘resorted to making strange allegations regarding legal norms and behaviours that should be adhered to by the Public Prosecutor’s Office itself more than anyone else. The newspaper also described the performance of the Public Prosecutor’s Office as ‘unprofessional’.

Al- Waqt explained the story - which was the root of the problem- and its repercussions in greater detail. Sabt published a piece of news on 11 March 2009 in which he spoke of the corruption in the Labour Market Regulatory Authority and stated that the Vice President of the operation presented his resignation quietly a few weeks ago over the discovery of manipulation of Bahrainization percentages for the interest of some influential figures. On 13 March 2009, the Newspaper published - in accordance to the Press Law- the response of the Regulatory Authority in which it corrected some facts, completely denied the allegations and demanded that the Newspaper to apologize. However, the publication of the denial did not satisfy the individual concerned, and he hence contacted the Newspaper demanding the publication of a personal apology and proceeded to file a complaint against the journalist.

On the Public Prosecutor’s request, both the Newspaper and the journalist, Hussain Al Sabt, presented their statements at a police station. And on 10 June 2009, it was said that there was a letter sent from the Public Persecutor to the journalist or the Newspaper which did not reach the concerned party. On 21 June 2009, the Newspaper was informed that there was session before the Public Prosecutor the following day, but no letter was sent to anyone regarding this. On 26 June 2009, the Newspaper and the journalist were surprised by a statement from the Public Prosecutor which stated that the case had been referred to the Criminal Court and that ‘the journalist, by failing to appear before the Public Prosecutor to present his statement, lost the opportunity to defend himself and refute the evidence against him”.

Al-Waqt saw that the lack of a written notice reveals that the Public Prosecutor had taken premeditated procedures against the concerned colleague and the newspaper. However, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, as told by its President Ahmad Bujairy, stressed on 29 June 2009, the fact that it did not send a direct notice to the accused journalist and stated that ‘the Public Prosecutor on 10 June 2009 informed the Ministry of Information of its request that the concerned journalist is wanted for questioning; and also informed the Journalists’ Society on the same date of this request and of the specified session for his interrogation’.

In an interview with Al-Bilad on 29 June 2009, Sabt stressed that responding to the Public Prosecutor’s request is unquestionable and in any case ‘ the idea of the police phoning a journalist in order to summon him regarding a complaint on a piece of news is an uncommon procedure when dealing with journalists’ adding that ‘ after my visit to the police station, I did not receive any oral or written notification to attend the session; as for the justification of only informing the Journalists’ Society, with all due respect to this procedure, it is still an uncommon practice. The Society had also clarified its position by saying that it is not a policeman responsible for notifying journalists and that the newspaper in which the journalist is working is the one who should be notified’. Sabt also added that it is essential to ‘determine a clear mechanism for dealing with complaints against journalists’

Minister of the Royal Court

Four Cases against Al-Ayam Newspaper

Before Sabt’s case settles down, a new one began between the Minister of Industry and Commerce and Al-Ayam Newspaper (Al-ayam regarded as a liberal newspaper) directly attacked the Minister on 15 July 2009 under this head line ‘In his Campaign against the Freedom of the Press and His Attempt to muzzle it, Fakhro Files Four Legal Suits against Al-Ayam’. This was part of a report in which the paper stated that ‘the gap between the Minister and media sector is expanding’. Al-Ayam stated that the reason behind this growing gap is linked to what was published by the Newspaper last May regarding the Ministry’s disposal of thousands of papers and official records in the village of Barhama. This led engineer Saeed Al-Asbool, the President of the Civil Society for Supporting Education and Training, to contact the Ministry and inform it about the classified documents. Al-Ayam stated that the Minister threatened both Asbool and Hussain Al-Sabagh, a journalist in Al-Ayam and that he contacted Asbool threatening to refer him to the Public Prosecutor.

On 8 July 2009, Al-Ayam quoted Elaf in that some Bahraini journalists held a meeting on 9 July 2009 in which they discussed the choices available for confronting those they described as the enemies of the freedom of the press (as guaranteed by the reform project) through the court or by demanding the King’s interference for the protection of journalists. This was a reaction against the attempt of a number of official bodies to target local newspapers and their editors by filing unnecessary lawsuits against them; in addition to insulting journalists and attacking their professionalism and nationalism.

Ahmad Al Mudawab, the President of the Freedom Committee in the Bahrain Journalists’ Society, commented on the law suits against Al-Ayam’s journalists stating they affect the freedom of the press which has recently flourished a great deal. He also demanded the concerned official bodies to undertake a comprehensive revision of their relationship with the local press and suggested initiating dialogue between them and the Journalists’ Society.

Kaleel Al Morzooq, the President of the Legislative Committee in the House of Representatives, expressed his concern with regards to pursuing the press and journalists in court merely because they published information regarding the deficiencies or negligence present in ministries and official institutions. On 10 July 2009, the Ministry of Commerce criticized in a public statement the unfair accusation filed against them for a week, which involved the Minister and the Ministry. It pointed out that the filing of law suits has nothing to do with the documents found in the rubbish bins. It added that filing a law suit is a right that is protected by the Constitution and is affirmed by the Press Law, stressing that ‘the Ministry has never and will never go against any written or published criticism against any sector or any official as long as it is carried out constructively and with the intention of reforming. The Ministry’s objection is against insults that are directed against it with the intention of unfairly accusing without any justification. The Ministry’s statement stressed that the law suits filed concerns the defaming of the Ministry’s image in public and insulting the Minister - which required the Ministry to resort to the law.

As a result of the back lashing between the Ministry and Al-Ayam, on 13 July 2009, the Minister of the Royal Court Shaikh Kalid bin Ahmad Al Khalifa took the initiative and gathered the two parties as a demand of the king in order to solve the problem in a friendly manner. After the meeting, the Court Minister announced that ‘the problem between the Ministry and the Newspaper was solved in friendly way’ and called for ‘the promotion of the freedom of the press in order to provide an opportunity for enlightening the public at large.