Reporters Without Borders is launching a campaign entitled “Don’t leave news out of the race” for this weekend’s Formula One Grand Prix in Manama. The campaign visual shows an image of Bahrain’s uprising reflected in the helmet of a racing driver who is about to start the race.
The aim of the campaign, which will be widely circulated on social networks, is to draw attention to the government policy of orchestrating disinformation about Bahrain’s street protests and the ensuing crackdown, and to the way news and information have been the crackdown’s collateral victims.
The Bahraini authorities have skilfully used double talk for more than two years with western governments that have supported democratic aspirations in other countries but have been reluctant to condemn the suppression of democracy in Bahrain, instead accepting its rulers’ insincere promises and superficial reforms.
On the eve of this world sports event, Reporters Without Borders wants to draw the international community’s attention to the continuing abuses in Bahrain. Ever since the start of the uprising in 2011, the government has clearly sought to impose the maximum restrictions possible on coverage of the demonstrations and the ensuing crackdown.
At the same time, it has mobilized an impressive public relations apparatus to defend its image, promising change, playing up the meagre progress that has been made and waging a disinformation campaign in constant in press releases.
The government boasts that, of the 176 recommendations by a working group during its Universal Periodic Review by the United Nations Human Rights Council in September 2012, it has accepted 145 fully and 13 partially. But these commitments are flouted as soon as the cameras leave. Journalists are still prevented from working freely.
Obstacles to freedom of information
The authorities have taken a number of measures to restrict journalists entering the country during the Formula One Grand Prix. Only those with “F1 visas” will be allowed entry from 7 to 21 April and they will be prohibited from “violating the security and national welfare of Bahrain.”
This will allow the government to arrest journalists who try to cover the human rights situation because it can claim that this violates the country’s “security and national welfare.” So, journalists will be restricted to covering the Formula One event and will be unable to report on any of the on-going political unrest.
A number of international media are meanwhile still awaiting visas for their photographers and cameramen. The authorities have already issued visas for the print media’s reporters but, careful as always of their image, are delaying the issuing of the precious visas for other categories.
On 14 April, a week before the Grand Prix, the government approved an amendment to article 214 of the penal code, increasing the penalties for defaming the king and insulting the national symbols (flag and coat of arms) to five years in prison and a fine of up to 10,000 dinars (20,000 euros).
If parliament passes the amendment, it will pose a major threat to freedom of expression and information, especially as the article is loosely worded and allows judges to interpret in an arbitrary manner.
News providers in prison
Ahmed Humaidan, a well-known photographer who has received 143 international awards for his photography, has been held since 29 December after months of continual harassment by the security forces. He is charged with attacking a police station in Sitra in April 2012, although he was there just to take photos of a protest.
Reporters Without Borders recently condemned the inhumane treatment he has received while in detention and called for the withdrawal of the charges. After repeated postponements, his trial is now supposed to take place on 15 May. A court decided in a hearing on 16 April to keep him in detention.
On 4 September 2012, the high court of appeal upheld the harsh sentences that a military tribunal had passed in June 2011 on 21 defendants accused of belonging to terrorist organizations and trying to overthrow the government.
On 7 January 2012, the court of cassation rejected the appeals filed by 13 human rights activists, including the blogger Abduljalil Al-Singace, spokesman and head of the human rights bureau of the Al-Haq Movement for Civil Liberties and Democracy. As a result, he was one of eight people to be sentenced to life imprisonment.
Ali Abdulemam, a fellow blogger and one of the Internet’s pioneers in Bahrain, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in absentia.
Although the publication of the findings of Cherif Bassiouni's Independent Commission of Inquiry in November 2011, under international pressure, forced the Bahraini judicial authorities to order a new trial before a civilian court, the judges still imposed long jail terms on human right activists and news providers.
Lack of judicial independence
The next hearing in the appeal against police officer Sarah Al-Moosa’s acquittal on a charge of torturing a journalist is due to be heard on 12 May. A Manama court cleared her on 22 October (LINK) of torturing and mistreating Bahraini journalist Nazeeha Saeed at Rifaa police station on 22 May 2011.
Bahrain correspondent for France 24 and Radio Monte-Carlo Doualiya, Saeed filed a complaint against three of the police officers who were present while she was mistreated but only Moosa was prosecuted. Reporters Without Borders was shocked by her acquittal, and said it illustrated the judicial system’s lack of independence.
The prosecutor’s office decision to appeal against the acquittal was clearly motivated by concern for Bahrain’s image and a desire to show the international community that everything possible is being done to punish those responsible for human rights abuses.
But the appeal has repeatedly been postponed and there is only one defendant. The many other human rights violators will never be tried and punished.