King Hamad, a graduate of Britain’s Cambridge University, wants to fast-track the Gulf kingdom to democracy. But his efforts have come up against growing demands by religious groups, so reforms that boost press freedom have been limited.
Bahrain is an oasis of tolerance for citizens of neighbouring Saudi Arabia fleeing the excesses of the Saudi religious police, as well as being the rearguard base for the US fleet in the Gulf and a major Middle East financial centre. Since he succeeded his father on March 1999, King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa has tried to move the regime from harsh dictatorship towards a constitutional monarchy. A new parliament was elected in 2002, 27 years after it had been dissolved, and when he opened its second session in October 2003, he urged MPs to strengthen democracy, openness, human rights and free market principles.
Religious divisions appeared with the victory of the Shiite Islamist opposition at municipal elections in May 2002 and both Shiite and nationalist progressive secular groups boycotted parliamentary elections in October that year. Democratic forms continue to advance, but it remains to be seen if the growing Shiite opposition and the government can together build a genuine democracy.
The Bahrain Association for Human Rights (BAHR), the country’s first independent organisation, welcomed (in its first report) in 2003 the marked improvement in human rights, including abolition of emergency laws and legalisation of trade unions and political groups.
But the press law, which came into force in November 2002, continued to be a problem. It guarantees the right to express opinions orally or in print but punishes anyone who supposedly undermines Islam, national unity or the person of the king or who stirs up division or strong religious feeling, with jail sentences of between six months and five years. Strong protests by journalists and the BAHR forced the authorities to back down, but a year of talks with journalists about the law did not produce any positive amendment to the law.
Bahrain has a promising independent media but the regime does not make it easy for journalists to organise as a group, as shown by the problems of the new Bahrain Journalists’ Association. Broadcasting remains a state monopoly and foreign newspapers and magazines are censored before they go on sale, though foreign journalists can enter the country without problems.
Harassment and obstruction
Information minister Nabil al-Hamar accused the media in early June 2003 of actively encouraging social discord. Six political movements, from the Shiite opposition to the secular left, criticised his remarks as a severe setback for freedom of expression.
The trial opened in the capital, Manama, on 21 June of two journalists accused of violating (in March) a ban on news about the release on bail of three suspected terrorists. After a further hearing on 1 July, the court adjourned until 20 September. The journalists - Mansur al-Jamri (editor) and Hussein Khalaf (journalist) of the daily Al-Wasat - were charged with publishing news about a terrorist network without permission from the prosecutor’s office. They face a fine of 1,000 dinars (2,600 euros) and six months in prison.
Since it started up in September 2002, Al-Wasat, which speaks for the Shiite community, has become one of the country’s most popular dailies and, some say, the most independent. Al-Jamri was official spokesman for the political opposition for 14 years before returning from Britain in 2001.
Anwar Abdel Rahman (editor) and Mariam Ahmed (journalist), of the daily Akhbar al-Khaleej, appeared in court on 5 July for libelling the judges of the Manama Islamic court in an April report about a sit-in outside the justice ministry organised by Badriya Rabe’a, whose two children had been taken away from her by the court. Three feminists and a religious official were also accused. The charges were not read out at the hearing and the judge quickly adjourned the case until 23 September to allow defence lawyers more time.
"That was a victory for the press, showing it was energetic and constructive and not at all biased," said Rahman. "We’re in a transition period and it’s normal for people to resist change."
A court ruled in October that reporters, not editors, were responsible for articles published. The paper’s lawyer took the case to the constitutional court but the appeal was rejected. The prosecutor sent the case back to the court that had ruled on responsibility. By the end of the year, no date had been set for another hearing.