What Future for the Freedom of the Press in Bahrain?

The Kingdom of Bahrain has witnessed in recent times a great dynamism with respect to the work of the media in general and freedom of the press in particular. This dynamism is clear at the state level and its relevant authorities and at the informal level represented by the trade unions, civil society and human rights organizations. The issue has also gained attention at the regional and international levels as we shall see later.

With the advent of the third of May 2009, Bahrain staged events and celebrations to mark the World Press Freedom Day. The occasion was a real opportunity to find out where Bahrain stands in the area of press freedom and what the future holds for freedom of the press in light of the volatile situation internally and globally.

At the official level, the King of Bahrain, in a remarkable speech marking the World Press Freedom Day on 3 May 2009, considered freedom of press as of great importance in the reform project. The King also stressed his belief in freedom of opinion and expression and their preservation. He renewed the affirmation that the comprehensive reform project has placed freedom of the press at the top of its agenda as one of the pillars of development, dialogue and advancement. On the other hand, the Ministry of Cul?ure and Information organized a ceremony on 3 May, to mark the World Press Freedom Day. During the event the Ministry launched the ‘Bahrain Initiative for Civil Media’ and announced the introduction of a new prize called the ‘Bahrain Award for Freedom of Press’ which will start from next year 2010. The Award will be allocated for distinguished Bahraini journalists.

With the political support from the highest political level, does this mean that the press in Bahrain enjoys the utmost freedoms, and that there are no obstacles or challenges affect such freedoms?

The question of freedom of the press in Bahrain has been covered in a number of reports at regional and international levels. The issue has also been dealt with locally. At the local level, observers noted that the current press law is clearly full of defects and disadvantages in that it provides for criminal sanctions against journalists. The licensing procedures are not flexible in terms of granting permit to issue daily newspapers. The authority that entitled to ban and block web sites in the internet ?emains unclear in relation to electronic newspapers. This power is being exercised by the Ministry of Culture and Information but it has been opposed by journalists and many MPs. Observers were unanimous in that more than ten articles of the current Press Law need to be deleted and not only amended because they are flawed and they detract from the freedom of the press. Observers also noted the slow pace of the legislative process in handling the amendments to the Press and Publication Law to the extent tha? suggestions made by the government several months ago are still at a standstill.

On the other hand, on 4 May 2009, the Journalists’ Syndicate (under formation) stated in Albilad newspaper that “freedom of expression, which was nurtured by the promising beginnings at the start of the reform project, has been eroded by the executive and the legislators as well. Some people look at the freedom of expression as a burden and not as an inalienable constitutional right.”

According to the newspaper, the Syndicate issued a statement on the occasion of the World Press Freedom Day in which it drew the attention to the “long fruitless debate over the Press, Printing and Publishing Law. The Law remains in force in its original version, which makes journalists look with deep concern to the slowdown in the adoption of a law that responds to all comments made since the passing of existing law in 2002”. The Syndicate pointed out that “the amendments made from time to time to the law?respond to some of the remarks, but add new restrictions on the other hand”. The Syndicate stressed that “freedom of the press and freedom of expression is not a luxury or a passing by value that can be deferred in times or adapted in other times in accordance with the wishes of some people. It is an inalienable right and an indispensable instrument for a pluralistic and healthy society. It is also a means to consolidate social peace”.

Globally, on 01 May 2009, Freedom House Organization issued its annual report for 2009, in which it has classified Bahrain in the list of countries (not-free) and lack press freedom. Bahrain has been ranked 156 out of 195 in the level of press freedom in the world.

There are other important developments. The Kingdom of Bahrain was ranked fifth in the freedom of the press according to the international index of Reporters sans Frontiers (RSF) for 2008, and was ranked the sixth in the annual report of the Amman Center for Human Rights on the situation of press freedoms in the Arab countries in 2008.

The regional and international emphasis on freedom of the press is indicative of the place of the press and the role it plays in the development of concepts of democracy, transparency, accountability and non-impunity. Since the report of Freedom House has been featured in this Newsletter, there is no need to elaborate on it here. The focus will be on the report of the Amman Center for Human Rights Studies.

The report was comprehensive and provides succinct overview for many factors including the focus of the Center on press freedoms in the Arab countries only, which means the concentration of the study. The report was also unique in its approach to the freedoms of the press in 18 Arab countries and the diversity of the group of researchers of the report, 12 people.

Table (24)
Degree of press freedom in Arab States
Very Low Degree Low Degree Relative Degree High Degree Very High Degree
Syria Tunisia Jordan Lebanon Kuwait
Saudi Arabia Iraq Morocco Mauritania Qatar
Libya Palestine Algeria Bahrain UAE
  Yemen Sudan    
The report pointed out that Bahrain is one of eight Arab countries where negative laws are used in practice with a strong desire to restrict and control the media and the press freedoms. The report also indicated that 3 reporters in Bahrain have been under preventive detention in 2008 in cases related to printing and publication. In this regard, the report pointed to the trial of two journalists in civil courts for crimes of publications and printing under the Press Law. Human rights organizations, l?sts’ Syndicate and legislators are working to change this situation. In this regard, the report pointed out that laws in Bahrain, as in all Arab countries, provide for the right of the press in criticizing the work of public servants provided that the truthfulness of the incident is proved and that the press acts in good faith. Furthermore, the report mentioned that the laws in Bahrain, as in all Arab countries, provide for the right to appeal to a higher judicial authority against decisions related to pub?ication offenses.

Although laws in Bahrain provide for the right of the press access to information, but in practice the press access to information is weak, according to the report. On the other hand, the report pointed to the existence of ethics code for journalists in Bahrain, but in practice is very weak, like other Arab countries.

The interest in building capacity and training of journalists is one of the issues that contribute to the quality of journalism and professionalism. In this regard, the report pointed out that the quality of training courses held in Bahrain is in practice very useful. This very encouraging assessment was achieved only in other three countries namely Lebanon, Jordan and Qatar.

Despite the shortcomings, obstacles and challenges surrounding freedom of the press in Bahrain, the report of the Amman Center has placed Bahrain with the Arab countries that enjoy a high degree in the field of freedom of the press, as the table below shows.

In light of the speech of His Majesty, the King, and his awareness of the importance of freedom of the press; and in addition to the decent reports on press freedom and constructive criticism; and considering the varied views in Bahrain on the laws governing the press; there are significant areas need to be highlighted and are mentioned here by way of recommendations:

  • The need to exert efforts by the state, the public, media people, trade unions, and human rights organizations towards press work and how to develop the press.
  • The urgent need for laws to keep pace with the democratization process and build on the achievements of the reform project of His Majesty, the King. Such laws should prevent preventive detention of journalists and criminalizing them because of their journalistic activities. There is also a need to provide information or facilitate access to information and dissemination by journalists. There also a need to ease licensing procedures in order to facilitate the issuance of daily newspapers, and, finally, to p?ovide full protection and immunity for journalists.
  • The importance of training journalists and media people in general as a way for the development of media and press aiming at serving the issues of human rights and fundamental freedoms. It is also important developing suitable capacity building and training programs for journalists and media people.