Media freedom ‘stamped out’ as Bahrain jails more journalists

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says media freedom in Bahrain has been “stamped out” after the arbitrary jailing of a blogger and a journalist on “terrorism charges”.

Blogger Ali Al Mearaj and newspaper journalist Mahmood Al Jazeeri were convicted on October 30 by a criminal court of “support for terrorist activities” and were sentenced to life imprisonment and 15 years in prison respectively.

Appearing in court with some ten other defendants in an “arbitrary” ruling, RSF said prosecutors had “no hard evidence” against them.

Their lawyers, who plan to appeal, have yet to receive a written, definitive, version of the court’s verdict, RSF said.

“Media freedom has been stamped out in Bahrain,” said Alexandra El Khazen, the head of RSF’s Middle East desk.

“The persecution of the regime’s critics is being stepped up and the spaces for free speech keep on being reduced.

“We are sounding the alarm and we call on the authorities to stop the arrests and arbitrary convictions of journalists and bloggers, including those carried out on the pretext of combatting terrorism.”

Mearaj was incorporated into this terrorism case after his arrest in June 2016. He was previously jailed for 27 months on charges of “misusing information technology” and insulting the king.

The persecution of the regime’s critics is being stepped up and the spaces for free speech keep on being reduced

A journalist with Al Wasat, an independent daily that has been closed by the authorities, Jazeeri has been held ever since he was arrested at his home in December 2015. As with Mearaj, it was in June 2016 that the terrorism charge was brought against him.

Both Mearaj and Jazeeri have also been stripped of Bahraini citizenship, an increasingly-imposed punishment against political detainees.

RSF also accused Bahraini authorities of fabricating charges in order to silence journalists. An appeal court has also upheld the five-year jail sentence imposed in September 2015 on sports journalist Hassan Ghareeb for allegedly participating in an attack on a police checkpoint although he was covering a football match at the time.

Mistreatment in prison

Detained journalists are exposed to appalling conditions in prison, RSF said. Photographer Ahmed Humeidan has an eye infection that needs to be treated in a specialised hospital, according to the doctor who examined him, but authorities are refusing to transfer him.

High profile human rights defender and blogger Nabeel Rajab was transferred two weeks ago to Jaw prison, which he often criticised in tweets for its frequent use of torture.

According to information gathered by RSF, the prison authorities have isolated him and have restricted his visits. They are also subjecting him to humiliating practices and are limiting his access to clothes and books.

International press banned

The authorities are not just silencing Bahraini media such as Al Wasat, the independent local paper that was closed arbitrarily in June. Restrictions on the foreign media have also been stepped up in the past year.

Neither Agence France-Presse, Reuters, the Associated PressFrance 24 nor Radio Monte Carlo Doualiya has an accredited correspondent in Bahrain any more.

The BBC and CNN have not had correspondents for even longer, while Al Jazeera ceased to have a correspondent in 2011.

A key US ally and home to the US Fifth Fleet, Bahrain has tightened its grip on dissent since 2011, drawing harsh criticism from international rights groups for its treatment of the Shia-majority population.

In April, parliament gave approval for military courts to try civilians charged with “terrorism“, a vaguely defined legal term in the kingdom.

A total of 15 journalists and citizen-journalists are currently detained in Bahrain. They include the blogger, intellectual and human rights defender Abduljalil al-Singace and the photographer Jaffar Marhoon, who were given life sentences in 2011 and 2015 respectively.

Bahrain is ranked 164th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.

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