(Beirut) – A Bahrain prosecutor on July 17, 2016, charged a correspondent for a French media outlet with violating the country’s licensing law for journalists, Human Rights Watch said today. The criminal charges against the journalist, Nazeeha Saeed, who has covered Bahrain’s domestic unrest for France 24 since 2009, violate her right to free expression and further undermines media freedom in Bahrain.
The authorities charged Saeed with working for foreign media without a license. United Nations human rights experts have stated that state licensing of journalists inherently violates freedom of expression. Saeed is also one of 23 people subjected to travel bans since the start of June. They include human rights lawyers and activists, trade union leaders, teachers’ and nurses’ representatives, and the president of the Bahrain chapter of Transparency International.
“Bahrain is making criminals of anyone who criticizes the government’s increasingly repressive policies,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Any government that claims to support press freedom needs to speak out loud and clear in support of Nazeeha Saeed.”
Saeed was only informed of the travel ban at the airport on June 29, when she attempted to leave Bahrain. She told Human Rights Watch that she has been unable to challenge the ban because she has not been able to find out the reason for it or by which ministry it was imposed. That would make the travel ban arbitrary.
A public prosecutor charged Saeed, on July 17, with violating article 88 of Bahrain’s press law, which states that correspondents for foreign media can only operate with a license from the Information Affairs Authority. The law requires renewing the license every year, and provides for a fine of 1,000 Bahraini dinars (US$2,650) for non-compliance.
On July 20, the Information Affairs Authority issued a statement saying it had warned Saeed several times that her license had expired, but failed to say that it had refused her attempt to renew it. Human Rights Watch has seen a copy of a letter that the agency sent to one of Saeed’s employers on June 16, 2016, which cites “the unsatisfactory evaluation of her performance by our specialists” as the reason for not renewing the license. Another journalist based in Bahrain, who requested anonymity, told Human Rights Watch that the agency has refused during 2016 to renew the licenses of at least two other journalists who had been working for foreign media.
Saeed, a Bahraini citizen, has worked as a journalist for foreign media in Bahrain since 2004. In 2011 she told investigators from the Bahraini Independent Commission of Inquiry, an international panel appointed by the king to review the government’s response to widespread protests that year, that she had witnessed security forces fatally shooting a 61-year old protestor at close range during anti-government demonstrations.
Security forces subsequently detained her and, she told Human Rights Watch, accused her of working with Iranian television as part of a terrorist cell that sought to overthrow the ruling regime and of filing false media stories. Saeed testified in court that during this interrogation she was subjected to serious physical abuse, including being slapped, hit with fists, kicked, and struck with a hose. She filed a criminal complaint against the security officers she said were responsible but, in November 2015, the Justice Ministry said there was “insufficient evidence” to prosecute them.
On June 29, when Saeed arrived at Manama airport to travel to Berlin, Interior Ministry officials told her that she was subject to a travel ban and could not leave Bahrain. She told Human Rights Watch that the officials were not able to give her any reason for the ban or tell her who imposed it or on what basis. She tried later that day to leave the country via the causeway that links Bahrain to Saudi Arabia, but Interior Ministry officials there told her the same thing. In the days that followed, officials from the Criminal Investigations Directorate and the Office of the Public Prosecutor told her that there were no open cases against her.
Other Bahrainis facing similar arbitrary travel bans since the beginning of June include Mohamed al-Tajer, a human rights lawyer; Abdulnabi al-Ekry, a rights activist; Jalila al-Salman, the former vice-president of the dissolved Bahrain Teacher’s Society; Rula al-Saffar, a nurse and human rights activist; and Mohamed Sharaf, the president of the Bahraini chapter of Transparency International.
Article 12(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Bahrain has ratified, states that the right of any person to leave their country, provided for in article 12(2), can only be restricted if necessary to protect “national security, public order (ordre public), public health or morals or the rights and freedoms of others,” or if the restriction is “consistent with the other rights recognized in the present Covenant.” The Human Rights Committee, the UN body of experts that interprets the covenant, has stated that state licensing or registration of individual journalists violates freedom of expression.
“Bahrain’s repressive tendencies clearly illustrate why governments should have no role in saying who should be allowed to practice journalism,” Stork said.