Flourishing Press amid Unsuitable Press Law

The Annual Report of Reporters without Borders for 2010 stated that: “the opening up of the political landscape, driven since 2002 by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, was coupled with a similar expansion in the press field.”

The report concentrated on Law No.47 of the Press Law, which was issued in 2002. The report began by criticizing this Law because it “did not take into account most of the recommendations from within the profession, which was consulted on the reforms, it gave new vigour to the written press.” The Paris based international organization pointed to what it called “Streamlining of the process of launching new publications provided a significant boost to the number of daily newspapers in circulation.” The report also stated that “articles in the law that had allowed journalists to be imprisoned were abolished. However, journalists can still be tried under criminal law and they generally submit themselves to regular and rigorous self-censorship.”

The report also highlighted the prohibitions in Law 47, which include “attack on the regime, the official state religion, morals or different confessions leading to a breach of the peace”. It added that Law 47 empowers the Culture and Information Ministry to close any publication or website. The report added that: “Editors of newspapers, as a result, find themselves under relentless political pressure”. However, the report did not provide any explanation or elaborate on this point.

The report also said “Since it was approved in 2002, many attempts have been made to reform the publications law, but the Government only put forward its own amendments to the National Assembly in June 2008 and they still have not been debated”.

The report described the privately owned written press as flourishing, despite this fact “the State has kept a monopoly on the broadcast sector.” It also mentioned that almost 99% of the population owns a satellite dish.

The second part of the report covers the margin of freedom in the country, “the Internet gives the Kingdom’s journalists a highly valued space for freedom of expression. But this space is now being brought much more under official surveillance and control.” Also, the telecommunication company “censors pages that incite violence, national discord, and of pornographic nature. In practice, many websites run by national or international non-government organisations are inaccessible.” It also criticised the Information Ministry for its “memo to Internet access providers, instructing them to censor websites that appeared on the Government’s blacklist. Since then, some websites that allow users to get around online censorship have also become inaccessible. This means that Internet users cannot go onto pages of some groups on the social networking site Facebook, seen as critical of the Government, along with 66 other websites dealing with subjects relating to human rights or politics.”

The report of Reporters without Borders for this year is well balanced, in tune with reality and concise. There is nothing new to say about freedom of expression and press restrictions in Bahrain. All the problems are rooted in Law No. 47 of the Press Law, which is in dire need of amendment, and the controversy regarding the nature of websites that are censored. The closure of websites that promote pornography and incite hatred is understandable, but what is not acceptable is the closure of websites belonging to registered political societies, which follow the Government guidelines, even though their rhetoric contains harsh criticism directed at the Government.

Bahrain’s ranking in press freedom has declined from 119 in 2009 to 144 out of 178 in 2010. This is due to the wide criticism directed at the record of Bahrain related to press freedom.