Improving the Media and Enhancing Freedom of Expression

All forms of the Bahraini media, the official and private, were victims of the events that took place in February 2011. The media also played a role in inciting sectarianism and contributed to oppressing freedom of expression and violated journalists’ rights. Freedom of expression was violated and strict censorship was imposed during past months. Due to sharp political and sectarian polarizations, hatred and incitement prevailed over the language of logic and reason. Many local and international journalists were badly treated, threatened, harassed, detained and dismissed according to the report of the BICI.

The Bahraini experience in freedom of expression before the events of February 2011 was not bad. Everyone was expecting and hoping for a new press law to be passed by Parliament, which would increase the margin of freedom of expression and live up to the expectation of the youth, but the recent unrest damaged Bahrain’s media image.

It is obvious that Bahrain needs to reconsider all the previous steps, which were taken to restrict freedom of expression, and it also needs a developed media law. The future of public freedoms should be dealt with wisely taking into consideration the current situation - post Bassiouni’s report - and the future of the next generation.

Currently, the media in Bahrain is divided into two sides; one represents the official view and the other represents the opposition, which reflects a clear social and political division. The impact of the official media has clearly decreased after the unrest because many have lost trust in it which raises a question, what is the point of having a one-sided media that directs its message to one group only? How can the Government accept the fact that its official media has no effect on a large segment of society? And who is responsible for this?

The reason for public repulsion of the official media was the result of many media mistakes such as the abandonment of a unifying discourse and the failure to reflect the concerns and interests of all citizens. This factional media is stereotyped and only its supporters listen to it and believe it. This kind of media is not acceptable to the opposition and should not be associated with the Government, which should respect its citizens and try to solve their problems and express their concerns. When State media fails to achieve this it is obvious that part of the society is going to look for different media options such as that of the opposition or foreign sources which are more credible.

Some say that state media and especially the State TV channels tried to include other parties during the beginning of the unrest but the opposition refused to participate which affected balancing different views.

The President of Information Affairs Authority (IAA) Shaikh Fawaz bin Mohammed Al Khalifa said that the opposition was not prevented from appearing on State TV and that 300 Shia figures from the opposition and civil society organizations were invited to appear on TV but all directly refused or excused themselves (Al Arabia Net, 25/11/2011).

Section (1640) of the BICI report stated that ‘it is clear that the media in Bahrain is biased towards the GOB. Six of the seven daily newspapers are pro-government and the broadcasting service is State-controlled. The continuing failure to provide opposition groups with an adequate voice in the national media risks further exasperating the political and ethnic divide in Bahrain. The lack of access to mainstream media creates frustration within opposition groups and results in these groups resorting to other media outlets such as the social media. This can have a destabilising effect because social media outlets are both untraceable and unaccountable; characteristics which present problems when such media is used to spread rhetoric full of hatred and incitement to violence’. The BICI report section (1640) recommended that the Government of Bahrain ‘consider relaxing censorship and allowing the opposition greater access to television broadcasts, radio broadcasts and print Media’.

State media should represent the whole country and reflect the cultural, political and sectarian diversity of the Bahraini society. When the state media becomes biased it will be unable to conceal other opinions. It is no longer possible to monopolize the media and it is not acceptable for different views to disappear from the scene. Representing just one side of the story highlights the failure of media to represent different segments of the society that have different political and cultural backgrounds.

We believe that the state media was a victim of its own mistakes. The newspapers that arbitrarily dismissed competent journalists lost many of their readers as well as their influence on political parties and the opposition. Moreover, the country has lost competent journalists who found jobs in other international media and worst of all this has resulted in more social and political divisions. When state media serves just one segment of the society, this will encourage others to establish their own media sources. There is no point in preventing the opposition from expressing its opinion inside the country when it can easily establish its own newspaper or satellite channel abroad or take advantage of social networks.

Bahrain needs a large margin of freedom of expression so that Bahrainis can express their opinions inside their country in accordance with a modern and unifying press law. Both the Government and the opposition were badly affected in the past months and only sectarianism and division are the winners.

We hope that past mistakes get corrected through the reinstatement of dismissed workers and allowing all opinions to be expressed freely in order to eliminate sectional discourse.

Moreover, as the BICI suggested in section (1722 /h) ‘to review convictions and commute sentences of all persons charged with offences involving political expression, not consisting of advocacy of violence, or, as the case may be, to drop outstanding charges against them’. Also, all charges against those arrested or convicted due to exercising their right of freedom of expression, assembly and establishing societies according to section (1723/L).

Section (1724) contained a recommendation relating to media incitement including relaxing censorship, allowing the opposition greater access to TV, radio and print media and establishing professional standards in order to avoid incitement of hatred and intolerance.

The King realised the problem of legal restrictions regarding freedom of expression. He pointed to this in his speech on 23 November 2011 and said ‘we have proposed to amend our laws to provide greater protection for the fundamental right of freedom of expression’. This includes the amendment of some sections of the Penal Code which criminalise some practices of freedom of expression’.

Before the February 2011 crisis, Bahrain was seen as an oasis of freedom of expression. We need to become more experienced and turn a new page. People of Bahrain deserve more freedom of expression and a sincere national media that is far from political and sectional polarizations.