Why the Press Freedom Suffers Setbacks?

Reporters sans Frontiers (RSF) issued its annual report for 2009, which assesses the level of press freedom in the countries of the world between 1 September 2008 and 1 September 2009. Bahrain was ranked 119, going back 23 positions in contrast with 2008 when it was ranked 96. At the Arab level, Bahrain was ranked in 8th place, while it was ranked 5th in the Gulf after Kuwait, UAE, Qatar and Oman. The RSF index measures the level of press freedom enjoyed by journalists and news institutions in each country, in addition to the efforts of Governments to respect, ensure and promote this freedom. To what extent this report reflects the level of press freedom in Bahrain? Is it actually declining? What are the criteria adopted by the report? How to address this decline?

Ironically, the RSF reached a different result in March 2008 after a visit to Bahrain. During that visit RSF concluded that Bahrain enjoyed a relative press freedom compared to the rest of the Gulf States despite the hidden pressures on journalists and restrictive laws. And it also concluded that Bahrain had not imprisoned a single journalist since March 1999, i.e. for full ten years. In May 2009, Freedom House in its annual report for 2009 classified Bahrain in the list of (non-free) countries, which lack press freedom. Bahrain was ranked 156 in the world out of a total of 195 countries.

RSF index is based on a questionnaire containing 40 questions dealing with criteria for evaluating the state of press freedom in each country. The questionnaire includes violations that directly affect journalists, such as murder, imprisonment, physical attacks, threats and violations against the media such as censorship and the confiscation of newspapers, inspection and harassment, as well as the degree of immunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of such violations. This setback is alarming to monitors and concerned parties in Bahrain, especially human rights activists, journalists and media people in Bahrain, at a time the general elections are looming and it is expected that the media would play a positive role. Causes of this decline vary. Some attributed this decline to the closure of a few websites on the Internet, but distinguished between the offending sites and sites that express dissenting opinion or criticism; to the government’s position on some issues that are difficult to be addressed in the press; to the cases brought against journalists. (al-Wasat, 27 October 2009).

Abdulnabi Ekry, Secretary-General of the Bahrain Transparency Society, added another dimension to this decline represented in prior censorship on news, whether by editors or officials, or self-imposed censorship, and by taking journalists to the courts to face claims made by some government entities such as the civil service department and the Sharia (Islamic) Courts. Abdullah Derazi, Secretary-General of the Bahrain Human Rights Society, attributed the decline in the index of press freedom after 2002 to the passing of terrorism and gatherings laws, in addition to not resolving the press law (al-Wasat, 23/10/2009).

The real challenge facing Bahrain now is the need to accelerate the legislative reforms in the field of press and publications. Press and Publications Act, Law No. 47, which came into effect in October 2002 is the framework governing the work of journalists and news institutions. This Act has not changed or amended despite the criticism it has received, and despite many promises of change. Abdullah al-‘Ali, MP, has strongly criticized the government for keeping the current law on press and publications, and considered it as a continuation of the old law restricting freedoms, which was adopted in the era of state security. (Al Quds Al Arabi, 10/11 October 2009). Fadel al-Hilaiby, member of the Political Office of al-Taqadomy (Progressive) and editor of its newsletter, pointed to the rejection of the political forces and institutions of the press law currently in place and described it as effectively restricts media freedom, and imposes sanctions on journalists including jail because of their positions and opinions. He called for the adoption of a modern law of Press and Publications, which does not contain provisions that restrict freedom of opinion and expression, or impose imprisonment of journalists for what they write.

For his part, Jamil Kazem, MP, considered the absence of a modern law for the press and publications that keeps pace with the rapid developments of information, especially in the area of electronic media and satellite channels, would eventually affect the level of freedom of expression in Bahrain (al-Wasat, 23/10/2009).

The BHRM has provided comprehensive analysis of the issue of freedom of the press in the 5th edition of the Newsletter of the BHRM, June 2009, under the title (What Future for Press Freedom in Bahrain?). In the light of the current decline of press freedom as indicated by RSF, the analysis we have presented served as a proactive and objective reading aimed to avoid such setbacks. In that article, we have pointed very clearly to 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 remains 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 that suggestions made by the government several months ago are still at a standstill.

And we have made several important recommendations, including:

• The urgent need for laws to keep pace with the democratization process and build on the achievements of the reform project of 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 provide full protection and immunity for journalists

It is worth mentioning that the Council of Ministers referred to the legislative authority in March 2008 a draft Press Law, which provides for the abolition of imprisonment of journalists. The draft is still before the legislature for discussion and adoption. But unless the draft law carries with it all the requirements of press freedom and protects journalists, we will not see a real shift in the path of freedom of the press, but we may see more declines, and this is what we do not want to happen.

However, the report of RSF does not seem convincing to any observer journalist. Despite the level of press freedom available in Bahrain, it is questionable to rank it (119), which is lower than the Sultanate of Oman (106), Qatar (94) or even UAE (86)?! Any Arab journalist is aware of the fact that freedom of the press in Bahrain is much larger than in many other countries including the countries mentioned above. This alone suffices to question the method and criteria of evaluation. Given this situation, it seems that the criteria are not quite good and hence the result is inaccurate.

We know that the level of freedom of expression in Bahrain has fallen relatively than in past years, but despite this the level of press freedom in Bahrain can not be compared with a number of countries which were best-ranked by RSF. We do not say that the evaluation was political, but it contains a degree of arbitrariness, and perhaps based on erroneous information.

Until now the problem revolves around a new press law, which is still frozen in the House of Representatives; and around some discussion boards on the Internet, which have been closed. But nor can these two elements constitute a reason that made Bahrain retreating about 23 positions in the ranking than in the past year! We all know there are those who exercise high level of criticism, and there are those who widely express opinion in the street and in newspapers, in addition to that no one journalist has been imprisoned. All of this does not eliminate the need to expand the margin of freedom. But because the debate is shifted now towards the ranks, it can be said with a little caution that the level of freedom in Bahrain has already quite advanced than the countries that the RSF’s report ranked them before Bahrain.