Reporters Without Borders has welcomed some amendments to the press law in Bahrain but voiced concern about some remaining failings that leave journalists and publications exposed to risk.
Despite real improvements, Bahraini journalists still face prison sentences for what they write and officials keep the right to close websites, the worldwide press freedom organisation said in a letter to the country's information minister, Jehad bin Hassan Bukamal.
The government in May proposed amendments to decree-law n°47 of 2002 to parliament which is to study them at its next session starting in October.
“Even though we broadly approve the amendments, there are a few outstanding questions”, it said in the 26 June 2008 letter. The press law reforms take things in the right direction. They amend the law by abolishing almost all prison sentences, along with some offences. Several articles also provide that a judge should monitor the running of media businesses rather than officials. These initiatives will favour a blossoming and strengthening of the kingdom's independent press”, the organisation said.
“Several articles are amended in a way that boosts press freedom. Prison sentences are abolished for distributing publications without a licence, before they are granted or after being banned or cancelled (Articles 16 and 86). “
“We hail the abolition of Article 21 under which foreign publications could be seized and even though distribution of these publications still has to be authorised, a refusal can in future be appealed (Article 17). Likewise, under Article 4 paragraph 5, a reason must be given for any refusal to grant a licence to a printer. It can also be appealed whereas there was no recourse in the event of a refusal under the current law.
The reform also reduces obstacles to the creation of new publications by opening up printing, publishing and press activities to foreign residents (Article 7), allowing foreigners, albeit with restrictions, to invest in a company publishing a newspaper (Article 45) and shortening the time limit for granting of licences. But at the same time, we can only deplore the fact that licensing, along with deposit of financial guarantees, granted by the information minister and after approval by the council of ministers, remain an essential condition to publish a newspaper”, the organisation added.
“In the same way, protection supplied by Article 19, which puts banning distribution of a publication under the control of a judge, remains risky since official seizure will still precede the decision going before the courts. We believe that no publication should be seized and no website closed before a judge can examine the complaint against them. Cases could be referred to a specialised court that would have the advantage that the judges would be knowledgeable about how the press operates and aware of what is at stake.
“Moreover, the abolition of Articles 68, 69, 70, 71 and 72, which, at first sight appear to be favourable to journalists, carry the implicit risk that judges could apply criminal law in some press cases. These articles punish criticising the head of state, harming the foundations of Bahrain's official religion, publishing news detrimental to national unity, private life and dignity of individuals or insulting the head of an Arab state which has good relations with the kingdom. All these measures considerably limited journalists' rights but abolishing them will not mean progress as long as other laws can be used to convict journalists. While waiting for a wider reform of Bahraini criminal law, it seems to us safer for these articles to be put back into the press code, but with prison sentences replaced by fines proportional to the offence suffered by the victims and removing all reference to criminal law”, Reporters Without Borders said.
“Article 5 excludes electronic publications from the press law. While it seems to us of little benefit to have a specific law for the Internet the amended law-decree 47 of 2002, could be applied to all press publications of whatever kind. Finally, we wish to remind you of our commitment to broadcast liberalisation. The extension of freedoms which you are working towards cannot succeed without ending the state monopoly in this sector”, the organisation concluded in its letter to the information minister.
Three journalists on the weekly al-Wefaq, press organ of the main opposition group of the same name, were summoned by state security services on 28 June and were not released until the following day. The editor Sayyed Taher, journalists Adel al-Ali and Mohammd Naaman are being charged with “inciting hatred of the government, “insulting the regime” and “publication of news fostering confessionnalism”. The representative for al-Wefaq, Khalil al-Marzooq, said the prosecutor's office had not produced any evidence or even any article to the three men before charging them.
The journalists were apparently questioned about their links to the website Awaal.net that was closed on the order of the information ministry on 24 June 2008. Two other websites, Shams Albahrain and Mamlakat Albahrain Forums were closed on the same date because of their “sectarian nature”. The information ministry relied on Article 19 of the decree-law No 47 of 2002, allowing any publication to be banned that “harmed the regime, the official state religion, morality or different confessions in a way likely to cause a breach of the peace”. At least 24 websites are currently being blocked in Bahrain as a result of decisions by officials.
The Manama government has also made known its wish to set up a commission responsible for monitoring sermons given in the kingdom's mosques as well as press articles and online discussion forums to “report any incitement to confessionnalism”. On the blogosphere, an ethical code has been proposed by blogger Mahmood al-Yusif to “appeal to the sense of honour of Internet-users” to counter hasty closures of websites. “The closure of online discussion platforms or any other website, whatever its content, only serves as a springboard to celebrity. It is only through debate in society that we will really succeed in changing people's mentalities,” he said.
A Reporters Without Borders' delegation went to Manama from 9 to 13 February 2008 to meet government representatives and opposition members, journalists, and leaders of civil society. Read the investigation report.