Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the Bahraini government to lift its ban on the country’s only independent media outlet, the Arabic-language daily Al Wasat, which is still closed a month being suspended “until further notice” by the information ministry on 4 June. It was forced to lay off all its employees (about 160) at the end of June.
Al Wasat has been suspended before but never for such a long time. Its closure apparently violates article 28 of Bahrain’s 2002 press law, which prohibits suspending newspapers without a court order.
“Al Wasat was suspended on 4 June for no good reason,” said Alexandra El Khazen, the head of RSF’s Middle East desk. “This suspension ‘until further notice’ constitutes an unprecedented act of censorship and means the end of independent journalism in Bahrain. We call on information minister Ali Al-Rumaihi to rescind this disgraceful decision and to do everything possible to help the newspaper to resume operating.”
The pro-government Bahraini Journalists Association expressed regret at Al Wasat’s closure and proposed coordination with the labour ministry with the aim of finding new jobs for its employees. Several Al Wasat journalists have criticized the BJA’s response on social networks, calling it belated and hypocritical.
On Instagram, the journalist Mohamed Jedhafsi accused the BJA of having no real desire to intervene and lacking interest in the fate of the newspaper’s employees. Also using Instagram, the photojournalist Abdullah Hassan said the BJA could have looked at the reasons for the newspaper’s closure instead of just commenting on its consequences.
Announcing Al Wasat’s suspension on 4 June, a national news agency communiqué accused the newspaper of repeatedly breaking the law, sowing divisions and undermining Bahrain’s relations with other countries. And it said an article in its 4 June issue (on a wave of protests in the Moroccan city of Al Hoceima) had defamed a fellow Arab country.
Al Wasat’s suspension was condemned in a joint letter published on 8 June by RSF and other media freedom and human rights NGOs.
Created in 2002, Al Wasat has been harassed by the authorities for years. Last January, its online edition was suspended for three days for inciting “discord in society and the spirit of sedition.” The print edition was banned for two days in August 2015.
It was first suspended (for one day) at the start of April 2011, at the height of unrest inspired by the Arab Spring, for allegedly publishing false information and endangering the state’s security and reputation.
Karim Fakhrawi, one of Al Wasat’s founders and a member of its board, died in police custody on 12 April 2011, a week after being arrested. RSF expressed outrage at his death at the time.
He and three other Al Wasat journalists including editor Mansoor Al Jamri were accused of publishing false information and endangering state security, for which the other three were finally sentenced to pay a fine of 1,000 dinars each in October 2011.
With at least 14 journalists and citizen-journalists currently detained, the Kingdom of Bahrain is one of the Middle East’s biggest prisons for journalists. It is ranked 164th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.