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,
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.