The President of the Bahraini Journalists Association (BJA):

Some officials are easily annoyed by what is written

In light of recent developments regarding the Bahraini Parliament’s discussion of the new Press Law bill, and due to the importance

Issa Alshaiji
of freedom of expression as a distinctive feature of the human rights issue, the BHRM conducted an interview with the President of the BJA Issa Alshaiji. A number of urgent issues relating to the bill were discussed in the interview, including the activities of the BJA and its relations with regional and international organizations, as well as the BJA’s views of the newly published reports on the margin of freedom of expression in Bahrain.

What is the BJA’s position on the current debate regarding the Press bill? What are your standards in assessing this bill? And to what extent are the Parliament and Executive Authority responding to controversial issues, such as punishing journalists and Government censorship of the internet and the media?

The efforts of the BJA are not new, and since the issuing of the 2002 Press Law it has participated in all activities and meetings held to develop the Law. The BJA has also presented written comments to both the Government and Parliament in this regard. As for the standards we adhere to, these represent the honorable position of His Majesty the King, which opposes the detention of journalists and calls for a contemporary Press Law. Our standards also include the principles put forward by the Activation of the National Action Charter Committee, chaired by HH the Crown Prince; international conventions and the varied experiences of the Bahraini media. As mentioned earlier, the BJA presented its comments to the Government and Parliament, and both responded well to them. We hope the country will adjust to democratic life, annul detention as a punishment for journalists and separate the Press Law from the Penal Code.

With regards to the extent of Government censorship of the media, I can say that this is practically non-existent. However, the media is subjected to the supervision and censorship of Bahraini society and other organizations. The internet in particular is censored, and many web sites have previously been blocked for different reasons. The Press Law, which is expected to pave the way for the establishment of private radio and TV channels, is still under discussion in Parliament, and has not yet been passed.

International human rights reports on Bahrain are based on inaccurate information i.e. on the opinions of politicians,
not journalists

How do you assess the experience of the BJA since its establishment? To what extent has it benefitted the freedom, political and intellectual independence of journalists? And what is your relationship with your counterpart societies in the region, as well as international organizations concerned with public freedoms?

The establishment of the BJA was a result of considerable efforts by Bahraini journalists for many years, and we appreciate all their efforts and sacrifices. This establishment was difficult, but with these efforts all obstacles have been removed, and the BJA has continued its path with determination and has become an influential body.

Despite its limited resources, the BJA has tried and still strives to achieve gains for journalists, and today we are trying to establish a fund in solidarity with journalists, the details of which will be announced soon. BJAed on its objectives, the BJA defended journalists in courts and appointed lawyers for them, attended interrogations carried out by the Public Prosecutor’s Office, issued solidarity statements with journalists, and settled many cases friendly BJAed on the agreement with the Public Prosecutor. The BJA has strong and wide-reaching relationships with many regional organizations and unions, and participates with them in some activities. Also, the BJA is proud to be among the first organizations in the Gulf who have joined the General Federation of Arab Journalists and was the second journalistic Arab organization after Palestine to be accepted as a member in the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).

At the international level, the BJA enjoys strong relationships with several organizations concerned with freedom of expression, and organized joint activities and workshops. Recently, an office for the IFJ was opened in Bahrain, and the Committee for Ethical Journalism was established. This is a great achievement for Bahraini journalists and the Bahraini media.

The journalist and the politician in the Arab World are seen as representing two different visions and interests, let alone two authorities (the press, known as the ‘fourth authority’ and the Executive Authority) and are not necessarily in harmony with each other. How do you assess the relationship between journalists in general, and the Executive Authority? And how do you envision this relationship to be in the future?

There is no special relationship between journalists and the Executive Authority, as the Press Law regulates the work of journalists and their relations with various parties (although we still have some reservations regarding the Law). Despite the fact that the political leadership directs officials on different occasions to cooperate with journalists, there are some officials in public institutions who do not accept any media criticisms. They therefore refuse to cooperate with journalists and conceal from them information and advertisements as a means of applying pressure. This also applies to some private institutions, which also attempted to conceal information and advertisement from the press when they were being criticized.

When His Majesty the King launched his democratic reform project, which included supporting the press, the position of the Bahraini press was promoted and it became an influential power. We urge officials for more cooperation with journalists, as we all share the same goal, which is serving the country and the people.

Some officials refuse to cooperate with journalists and bar information and advertisements from
the media as a
means of pressure

A number of international reports were issued recently regarding freedom of expression in Bahrain such as Reporters without Borders’ report on the freedom of the press in the country. Some reports have criticized the level of press freedom in the country and freedom of expression in general. As a body concerned with promoting freedom of expression, how do you assess the status of freedom of press in the past decade, and since the beginning of the reforms? And how do you envision its future? And what is your opinion of these reports?

Thanks to His Majesty’s democratic reform project which allowed the press to be free, the press in Bahrain has developed significantly and there has been a rise in the number of newspapers in the country. We as journalists felt the effects of this newly gained margin of freedom, and the influential role of the press. It is true that the courts have witnessed some lawsuits, but most were not filed by the Government against journalists, but rather from individuals and institutions. The Public Prosecutor has also cooperated positively with journalists and with the BJA, and we appreciate this.

Since the beginning of the reform project, it is clear that the margin of freedom of expression in the press has widened, and journalism is now being practiced responsibly. With the ratification of a developed Press Law in the near future, it expected that the press will play a more important role in the future.

With regards to the international reports, it is important to draw attention to an important point, which is that the sources of information of some of these reports are inaccurate. Therefore, their results are not realistic and do not meet the required standards. These reports are not BJAed on journalists’ opinions, but reflect politicians’ points of view. We urge these organizations to verify their information and depend on journalists themselves for their information.

Some people believe that the state of the press in Bahrain is declining, especially with regards to the level of professionalism and the lack of expertise and qualified staff. Others also think that the Bahraini press is dominated by politics and ideological polarization. To what extent do you think this is correct, and how it affects the role of the press in awareness raising?

To some extent what you have mentioned is true, for our press is suffering from polarization as well as the existence of some journalists with various political affiliations. In addition, some journalists refuse to attend workshops and training courses organized to develop journalistic skills. There is also the lack of well qualified staff. All these problems have affected the level of professionalism in the press. We hope that the administrations of these newspapers will make more efforts in order to develop the expertise of their staff, by encouraging them to participate in training courses. We also hope that journalists will adhere to the standards of professionalism and neutrality in their work.