On 29 November a Bahraini court sentenced Faisal Hayyat, a journalist who hosts a satirical channel on YouTube, to three months in prison for a tweet deemed to have insulted a “religious symbol and group.” It is not yet known if he plans to appeal.
The Criminal Investigation Directorate interrogated and arrested Hayyat on 9 October, a few days after he posted an open letter to the Bahraini authorities on social networks in which he referred to the conditions in which he was detained in 2011 and criticized governmental corruption and free speech violations.
On the eve of the verdict, 45 NGOs including Reporters Without Borders (RSF) issued a joint statement urging Bahrain’s king to release Hayyat and other human rights defenders such as Nabeel Rajab, who are being held for criticizing the government on social networks and other platforms.
Faisal Hayyat has presented a weekly satirical broadcast about politics, business and social issues on his YouTube channel (Sha7wal) since 2013, and has tens of thousands of subscribers.
His arrest could also be a direct reaction to an open letter he posted on Facebook on 1 October criticizing the interior minister’s comments about religious faith and his department’s supposed respect for human rights in a speech that the minister gave on 29 September. Hayyat denounced the mistreatment he received while detained for nearly three months in 2011. During this detention, Hayyat was tortured and humiliated for participating in a march held to support journalists and to demand media freedom and the then interior minister’s replacement.
“We condemn Faisal Hayyat’s arbitrary detention, which reflects the Bahraini regime’s determination to silence all critics, and we urge the authorities to free him immediately and unconditionally along with all the other journalists being held unjustly,” said Alexandra El Khazen, the head of RSF’s Middle East desk.
Hayyat is being held under article 309 of the criminal code, under which anyone defaming a recognized religious sect or ridiculing its rituals faces the possibility of a one-year prison sentence or a fine.
A former sports reporter and commentator, Hayyat used to work for the Qatari sports TV channel Al-Kass and for the newspaper Al-Bilad. More recently he has been active on several media platforms and social networks including Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat and Facebook.
Bahrain is ranked 162nd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index.