Thursday, May 19, 2011

Bahraini journalists deny charges of unethical coverage

Four journalists from Bahrain’s only opposition newspaper, Al Wasat, have pleaded not guilty to the charge of unethical coverage of the security forces’ crackdown on Shia-led opposition protests against the kingdom's Sunni rulers. The charges against Al Wasat’s journalists include not only “publishing fabricated news” but also “the intention of causing instability in Bahrain”, punishable by up to 2 years in jail. The million dinar question is not whether the Al Wasat journalists are guilty or innocent, but whether they would still have been accused of fabrications had the articles been coloured with a pro-government hue.

The original 14 February protest movement included demands for the prime minister to step down, for fair elections, and for equal rights for all - including an end to anti-Shia discrimination. The suppression of the protests came after the government imposed martial law and invited troops from Sunni-ruled neighbours Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Co-operation Council to help quell the unrest. Several journalists and photographers have already been detained over their coverage of the civil unrest, including one of the founders of Al Wasat, Karim Fakhrawi, who died in police custody a week after he was arrested on 5 April. Other individuals who have documented the unrest in a non-professional capacity have also been targeted, including online bloggers, microbloggers, forum administrators and moderators.

Al Wasat was ordered to stop printing in early April after being accused of falsifying six news articles. One example was an article concerning a Bahraini who claimed he had been assaulted by security forces, but the accompanying photograph allegedly showed a Moroccan assault in 2005. Al Wasat’s publishing ban was lifted following the resignation of 3 of its editors, all of whom are to be put on trial: Chief Editor, Mansoor al-Jamri; British Managing Editor, Walid Noueihed; and Head of Local News, Ageel Mirza. A fourth journalist, Ali Al-Sherify, was deported last month and will be tried in absentia.

Former Chief Editor, Mansoor al-Jamri, has acknowledged that six false articles did appear in Al Wasat - yet claims that the articles were not a case of genuine mistakes being made, but rather that Al Wasat was purposely targeted by an external campaign to plant misinformation. Jamri claims the false information was emailed to the Al Wasat complete with fake phone numbers, but slipped past editing checks due to weak infrastructure following an attack on the newspaper's printing offices in mid March by mobs armed with clubs and butcher knives. Jamri has voiced the possibility of a double agent planted in Al Wasat to spread fabrications. The case has been adjourned until June 15 to give defence lawyers time to review the prosecution’s evidence.

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