Amnesty and the IAA:

Respecting or Restricting Freedom of Expression?

□ The President of the Information Affairs Authority (IAA): we have licensed the publication of 1000 newsletters and journals, and we always strive to develop the law in line with openness and freedom of opinion and expression.

□ Blocked websites promoted violence, encouraged vandalism of public properties, and publicised methods of manufacturing explosives, weapons and implanting bombs.

On 9 November 2010, Amnesty International issued a statement following its recent visit to Bahrain, in which it criticised the Bahraini Government for undermining freedom of expression. This seems to be a harsh description of the state of freedom of expression in the country.

Amnesty also expressed its concern regarding the closure of several websites and publications, including those belonging to licensed political societies. The statement also pointed to some Government requirements, which restricted the freedom of expression guaranteed by international human rights conventions, signed by Bahrain.

The statement also urged the Bahraini Government ‘to lift the restrictions imposed on political associations’ websites and restore the associations’ publishing licences and allow them to distribute information freely in accordance with international human rights law.  Political associations should have the right to disseminate information freely, including to the public, and that both laws related to publication and political associations should be amended and brought into full conformity with Bahrain’s obligations under international human rights law’.

The View of the IAA

On 19 November 2010, the BHRM relayed these concerns regarding freedom of expression to the President of the IAA, Sheikh Fawaz bin Muhammad Al Khalifah, which he kindly responded to.

The President of the IAA.

■ Why were some websites belonging to licensed political societies blocked? Can you explain their breaches of the law?

Some of the websites you mentioned were blocked because their contents breached the Press and Publications Law, and others had used unlicensed electronic applications on their websites.

■ Who is responsible for the decision to close these websites, and does this fall under the jurisdiction of the concerned Ministry or the Court, and according to which article?

This was based on the Ministerial Decree No.1 for 2009 regarding the regulation of websites, and in accordance to Articles 19 and 20 of Decree No.47 for 2002, regarding the organisation of press, printing and publications.

■ Did the decision come gradually or without previous warning? In other words, did you inform the owners verbally or in writing to warn them of their transgressions? If so, could you provide us with examples of your actions and the reactions of the owners, if any?

The decision came in a gradual legal manner, as the owners were first informed of the breaches, then they were sent an official letter requesting the removal of the illegal material. This included a warning that their websites would be closed if the matter was not addressed, and we have copies of these correspondences.

■ Does the law allow the owners of these websites to appeal to the courts, and according to which articles?

Yes, the Law allows this, in accordance with articles 19 and 20 of Law 47 for 2002, regarding the organisation of press, printing and publications.

■ How many websites were blocked? And how many of these were pornographic, and how many were political and inciting violence? Can you give us examples of this?

No opinion-based websites were blocked, only websites which contained incitement and sectarianism, encouraged vandalism of public properties, attacked public interests, destabilized the security of the Kingdom, and spread lies and rumours. In addition, some publicised incitement against the regime, and promoted violence to the extent that they published methods of manufacturing and implanting bombs, smoke bombs, magnesium and sodium and Molotov cocktails, among other explosives. These websites incited youths to manufacture these bombs, and to use them against the security forces and the police.

■ How many political websites are still blocked? And why the ban has not been lifted? Is this the fault of the IAA or the owners of these websites for not responding to the IAA’s warning?

The ban was lifted from many blocked websites after their owners modified their content.

■ What is the number of banned newsletters and to whom do they belong? And was your decision to ban them also gradual? Have the owners of these newsletters resumed publication? And was the decision to close them made by the courts or the IAA?

Four newsletters were banned, and they belong to the following parties: al Wefaq National Islamic Society, the Progressive Democratic Forum Society, the National Democratic Action Society and the Islamic Action Society. The publication of these newsletters was stopped due to their violation of the laws and regulations, and the failure to adhere to decision No. 2 for 2006. They were also banned for their failure to adhere to the IAA’s conditions, according to which they were granted licenses. The decision came after several warnings, and the IAA also met the representatives of these societies, and urged them to adhere to the laws and regulations. However, their irregularities continued, which led to the ban.

■ If the IAA acted according to the current law, which Bahraini civil society and international organisations as well as a number of MPs have all criticised, what measures have you taken to amend the law in order to be in line with the requirements of freedom of expression, and in accordance with the international conventions signed by Bahrain, as well as Bahraini regulations themselves (the National Charter and the Constitution)?

The IAA has licensed around 1000 newsletters and journals, and did not experience any problems with these, except for the four cases mentioned above. The Press and Publications Law is currently being discussed in the Bahraini House of Representatives, although its articles conform with all international conventions, we always strive to develop the Law, in line with the openness and freedom of expression enjoyed by Bahrain.