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
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
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
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
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.
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.
Degree of press freedom in Arab States
|Very Low Degree
||Very High Degree
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.