(Manama) - Bahraini authorities should immediately drop politically-motivated charges against Mansoor al-Jamri, allow him to return as chief editor of Al Wasat, and cease their campaign to silence independent journalism, Human Rights Watch said today. Al-Jamri's resignation under duress and his subsequent indictment on charges of knowingly publishing news has left Bahrain without a single independent mass media outlet to report about the fierce repression that has killed more than two dozen people, wounded hundreds, and created a state of fear, Human Rights Watch said.
On April 11, 2011, the state-run Bahrain News Agency (BNA) reported that the Public Prosecutor will charge al-Jamri and two other editors "with publishing fabricated news and made up stories ... that may harm public safety and national interests." Bahrain's Information Affairs Authority had previously suspended Al Wasat on April 2, 2011, following a program on state-controlled Bahrain television claiming that the paper had published "false news" and photos in its March 26 and March 29 editions and would not be allowed to publish on April 3. The Information Affairs Authority allowed Al Wasat to resume publishing on April 4, but only after al-Jamri, the founder and editor in chief, resigned, along with the managing editor and local news editor.
"Mistaken information is no justification for shutting down a newspaper and prosecuting its editor," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Bahrain's rulers are showing they have no shame by muzzling the one media outlet that was widely regarded as the country's only independent news source."
Human Rights Watch has monitored Al Wasat's contents since the editors' departure. It found that paper has largely ceased publishing news and analysis differing from that of the rest of Bahrain's mass media, which are effectively controlled by the state or government supporters. Coverage of subjects such as arbitrary arrests and deaths in custody, and other sensitive information, has been considerably reduced.
Al-Jamri and his colleagues told Human Rights Watch they examined the alleged false news and photos, and that the six items had been sent as emails from different addresses, but from a single external internet protocol (IP) source, based in a neighboring country. All of the false news items and photos dealt with alleged incidents, such as raids on homes by riot police, that have been frequent and routine in Bahrain since March 15. The emails appeared to have been sent also to other Bahraini newspapers, making them appear more authentic, but with small mistakes in the addresses so that in fact Al Wasat was the only recipient.
The authorities announced on April 3 that they would initiate legal proceedings against Al Wasat "following compelling evidence of press law violations including forgery and falsification." On April 11, authorities summoned al-Jamri, managing editor Walid Nouwaihidh, and the head of the local news department Aqeel Mirza to the Public Prosecutor's office, where they were questioned for more than two hours. The announcement that the three would be charged followed immediately.
On April 4, the Information Affairs Authority had separately summoned two Iraqi journalists who had worked for Al Wasat since 2005, Ali al-Sharefi and Rahim al-Ka'bi. Employees at Al Wasat told Human Rights Watch that the officials pressured them to claim that al-Jamri had knowingly fabricated the stories and photos in question. When they insisted otherwise, Bahraini authorities summarily deported them and their families.
The Bahrain television program attacking Al Wasat was followed by a 30-page report by the Information Affairs Authority detailing Al Wasat's alleged transgressions. The BNA reported that Al Wasat "disseminated old news published in other Arab, local newspapers, websites and blogs." Authorities also alleged that Al Wasat had presented incidents that happened in other countries, claiming they took place in Bahrain, causing "human rights organizations and countries [...] [to rely on] baseless information when commenting on the situation in Bahrain."
The report, according to the news agency, concluded that the evidence presented "leaves no doubt that [Al Wasat] has malicious intentions" and that it sought to incite its readers, thereby violating Article 168 of Bahrain's penal code and Royal Decree 47 concerning the establishment of the press. Article 168 imposes imprisonment "for a period of no more than 2 years" or a fine if a person is found to have "willfully broadcast[ed] any false or malicious news reports" that result in "disturbing public security, terrorizing people or causing damage to public interest."
"In normal circumstances, even in Bahrain, authorities would inquire about the source of a news item and if it couldn't be verified the newspaper would publish a correction or retraction," Stork said, "The rush to force Mansoor al-Jamri out of the paper he founded was clearly aimed at silencing all critics, not at correcting misinformation."
After Bahrain television aired its program, al-Jamri publicly acknowledged that the reports identified by authorities were false and misleading, but he rejected accusations that he and his staff knowingly published false information. He told Human Rights Watch that on April 3 Al Wasat had opened an internal investigation into the source of the false information, and found that all of it originated from one internet protocol source in a neighboring country.
Al-Jamri also told Human Rights Watch that the fabricated information was released at a time when the newspaper was operating with reduced staff following attacks on its employees and offices, and that the articles had not been properly vetted to verify their authenticity. Unknown assailants attacked Al Wasat's printing press at about 1 a.m. on March 15, reducing printing capacity. The unstable security situation had also affected operations at Al Wasat's main office, forcing employees to shut down evening operations to prepare the next day's paper, and instead work from their homes.
"Under normal circumstances, Al Wasat would have some 30 desk editors, reporters, photographers, page-makers, proof-readers, and other supporting staff available to check and process incoming news," al-Jamri told Human Rights Watch. "However, under the emergency situation, staff had to stay away and process the work from their homes."
Al-Jamri also told Human Rights Watch that, since the declaration of martial law on March 15, Al Wasat had been in close contact with authorities, including the Interior Ministry, regarding the content of material it planned to publish.
Human Rights Watch said that Bahrain's efforts to end Al Wasat's critical reporting violated the country's international human rights obligations. Article 19 of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, to which Bahrain acceded in 2006, protects the right to freedom of expression, including "freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice." Any restrictions on this right must be provided by law and necessary to "respect the rights or reputations of others" or "for the protection of national security or of public order or public health and morals."
"The actions to tame Al Wasat are symptomatic of a full-scale clampdown against any form of dissent in Bahrain," Stork said. "Since mid-March, the government has methodically targeted and attempted to silence critics of every stripe inside the country. Now they have managed to eliminate Bahrain's only independent mass media outlet."