(Beirut) – Bahraini authorities on June 4, 2017, ordered the immediate indefinite suspension of Al Wasat, the country’s only independent newspaper, Human Rights Watch said today. The Bahrain authorities should immediately revoke the order. Al Wasat is one of the very few independent news sites in the entire Gulf region.
Yousif Mohammed Ismail, the media director at the Ministry of Information Affairs, delivered the order to suspend publication verbally in a phone call to the newspaper. A subsequent statement on the government news agency site said Al Wasat had violated the law and would not be published “until further notice.” The statement added that Al Wasat had “created discord and damaged Bahrain’s relations with other countries.” It cited a June 4 opinion article about a rural uprising in al-Hoceima, in northern Morocco, which said that the protesters had legitimate demands.
“A newspaper in Bahrain should be able to comment on and criticize the authorities in Morocco or anywhere in the world,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Shutting down Al Wasat is a prime example of Bahraini authorities’ complete intolerance of any kind of independent expression.”
Bahrain’s suspension of Al Wasat came days after the government dissolved the leading secular opposition society, the National Democratic Action Society (Wa’ad), on May 31, 2017.
Bahraini authorities have suspended Al Wasat on three previous occasions since the paper was founded in 2002, but never for more than three days. In April 2011, authorities suspended Al Wasat for one day, claiming the paper had published “false news.” Bahrain’s Public Prosecutor subsequently charged the Al Wasat editor, Mansoor al-Jamri, and three other editors “with publishing fabricated news and made up stories ... that may harm public safety and national interests.” All four received a fine, and al-Jamri briefly stepped down as editor, returning in August 2011.
In August 2015, authorities suspended the paper for two days without giving any reason, and in January 2017, authorities suspended the online edition of the newspaper from publishing for three days, accusing it of “inciting division, jeopardizing national unity, and disrupting public peace,” after it published an article about violent unrest in the Bahraini town of A’ali.
Al Wasat’s suspension is a violation of the right to freedom of expression and an attack on media freedom, Human Rights Watch said. It also appears to violate article 28 of Bahrain’s 2002 press law – Decree No. 47 for 2002 – which states that a court order is required to close or suspend a newspaper.
The UN Human Rights Committee, in giving guidance on freedom of expression, has stressed the vital importance of protecting peaceful criticism of state authorities. It has also stressed that it is not permissible to ban or shut down a newspaper because of one article.
Between 160 and 180 staff will lose their jobs if Al Wasat is forced to close.
On June 8, 2017, Bahraini’s Ministry of Interior announced that “as a sovereign right of Bahrain, any show of sympathy or favoritism for the Qatar government or objection to Bahrain’s action on the social media in the form of tweets, posts or any spoken or written word will be considered a crime punishable under the Penal Code and will lead to a jail term of up to five years and fine.”
Qatar is currently in dispute with Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain. On June 16, Bahraini media reported that authorities had arrested a lawyer who had announced his intention to legally challenge the economic blockade that Bahrain, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia have imposed on Qatar. Local sources identified the lawyer as Isa Faraj Al Bou Rashid.