Reporters Without Borders wrote to US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on December 2 to share its concerns about freedom of information in Bahrain ahead of his visit to the kingdom for the December 6-7 Manama Dialogue on security in the Persian Gulf.
The letter asks him to raise the issue of freedom of information in his talks with Bahraini officials.
Read the letter:
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel
US Department of Defense
1400 Defense Pentagon
Washington, DC 20301-1400
Paris, December 2 2013
Dear Secretary Hagel,
Reporters Without Borders, an international organization that defends freedom of information, would like to share with you its concerns about the situation of freedom of information in Bahrain ahead of your participation in the Manama Dialogue’s ninth session on December 6-7.
In the two years since the start of a popular uprising in Bahrain, the kingdom’s authorities have crushed demonstrations calling for political reforms and have not hesitated to target journalists and other news providers covering this protest movement and the methods used by the security forces to suppress it.
The Bahraini authorities continue to obstruct the work of journalists and to arrest, imprison and prosecute news providers in violation of the international undertakings it gave to the UN Human Rights Council in 2012.
Seven news and information providers are currently detained in Bahrain:
- Arrested in 2011, Hassan Ma’atooq received a three-year jail sentence from a national security court for posting photos of people who were injured during major protests in February 2011.
- A blogger and head of the human rights bureau of the Al-Haq Movement for Civil Liberties and Democracy, Abduljalil Al-Singace has been held since March 2011 and is now serving a sentence of life imprisonment that a high court of appeal upheld on September 4, 2012. He is one of 13 opposition leaders and activists convicted of “creating and running a terrorist group aimed at changing the constitution and system of monarchy (…) by force,” “being in contact with a foreign terrorist group that acts in the interests of a foreign country and carries out hostile actions against Bahrain,” and “raising funds for this group.”
- The well-known photographer Ahmed Humaidan was arrested on December 29, 2012 on a charge of attacking a police station in Sitra on April 8, 2012, although he was not there that day. His trial began on February 12, 2013 but the prosecution keeps on postponing hearings because it has difficulty producing witnesses. The next hearing is set for December 19. His lawyer has repeatedly but unsuccessfully requested an independent investigation into his client’s allegations of torture. His requests to the prison authorities to let his client be examined by a doctor have also been unsuccessful.
- Arrested in July 2013, the photographer Hussain Hubail was charged on August 21 with “managing (electronic) accounts calling for the government’s overthrow,” “promoting and inciting hatred against the government,” “inciting others to disobey the law,” and calling for illegal demonstrations. He is also accused of “contributing to the Twitter account of the February 14 media network.” According to witness accounts, he has been mistreated and even tortured. A hearing in his case was scheduled for November 28 but was postponed until December 22.
- Arrested at his home by masked plainclothesmen on July 31, 2013, the blogger Jassim Al-Nuaimi is accused of using social media to incite anti-government hatred and to call for illegal demonstrations. He was particularly active during the uprising, posting on the 14Feb media website. After being held for several days at the General Directorate of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), he was transferred to Dry Dock prison on August 3, only to be transferred back to the CID and then forced to sign a confession before a prosecutor. Witnesses say he has been tortured or mistreated. A hearing scheduled for November 28 was postponed until December 22.
- Freelance cameraman Qassim Zain Al-Deen was arrested at his home on August 2, 2013, in the run-up to the “Tamarod” demonstrations in mid-August, and has been held at the Dry Dock detention centre ever since. On November 26, a judge postponed his hearing until January 20, 2014. The charges against him include vandalism inside the detention centre.
- The photographer Abdullah Salman Al-Jerdabi was arrested on September 13, 2013 while covering a demonstration in the village of Mussala. He is charged with participating in “illegal gatherings.”
The blogger Mohamed Hassan was released a few weeks after being arrested on July 31 but is still facing charges of “managing (electronic) accounts calling for the government’s overthrow,” promoting and inciting hatred against the government, inciting others to disobey the law, and calling for illegal demonstrations.
Many news providers have reported being mistreated during detention. These claims should be independently investigated. The investigations so far carried out have been at the very least partial and have resulted in the withdrawal of all charges or acquittals or derisory prison sentences. The journalists who have been victims of such denial of justice include Nazeeha Saeed, a reporter for France 24 and Monte-Carlo Doualiya. The policewoman accused of torturing her during detention in 2011 was acquitted on appeal on June 23, 2013.
Impunity reigns. No independent investigation has been conducted into 22-year-old cameraman Ahmed Ismail Hussain’s death on March 31, 2012. Hussain was fatally shot while covering a peaceful demonstration in Salmabad, a village southwest of the capital. After Karim Fakhrawi, co-founder of the only opposition newspaper, Al-Wasat, died in detention in April 2011, two policemen were initially sentenced to seven years in prison for torturing him to death, but their jail terms were reduced to three years on appeal on October 27, 2013.
The netizen Zakariya Rashid Hassan, administrator of a now-closed online forum that provided information about the village of Al-Dair, where he was born, died in detention on April 9, 2011, seven days after his arrest on charges of inciting hatred, disseminating false news, promoting sectarianism and calling for the regime’s overthrow in online forums. The interior ministry claimed that he died as a result of sickle cell anemia complications, but his family has ruled this out. The authorities’ tolerance of such abuses violates Bahrain’s international obligations.
The authorities furthermore mean to control the media. This is a country where six of the seven daily newspapers are controlled by associates of the royal family or government. The independence and impartiality of the media (and therefore freedom of information) is, at the very least, compromised.
The Information Affairs Agency, created by a 2002 media law, was used to restrict media freedom during the 2011 unrest. It was responsible, for example, for the newspaper Al-Wasat’s closure for several months and the prosecution of its editor and co-founder, Mansoor Al-Jamri. It has many powers, including the power to censor or prevent the distribution of Bahraini publications, to close newspapers by means of judicial proceedings, and to block websites. Giving a government agency so much power is a serious threat to freedom of information.
The government has been promising a new media law since 2012 that will supposedly be more progressive. Its architect is the current information minister, Sameera Rajab. But this new law has yet to be adopted and Bahrainis still do not know what provisions it will contain.
We therefore think that it is important that you should raise the issue of freedom of information in Bahrain during your talks with Bahraini officials.
I thank you in advance for the attention you give to this letter.
General Secretary, Reporters Without Borders