Bahrain acquired its independence from the British Protectorate in 1971. Following independence, the country’s new constitution was ratified. The constitution provided for freedom of expression for the press within the media laws present at the time. However, some articles in this same constitution had to contradict clauses on media freedom. In 1976, a penal code came into effect. It had some restrictions on the freedom of expression compared to those guaranteed under the constitution. It had a lot of unspecified repercussions. Some were so severe to the extent that they were viewed as meant to protect the ruling regime. In this paper, media law and reforms in Bahrain were addressed.
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Bahrain has ranked poorly in press freedom. The poor ranking was evidenced during the Arab Spring upheavals in 2011. The violence was as a result of tensions between the Suni and the Shiite Muslims. Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Khalifa assumed office in 1999. The leader heralded a new era in media freedom. During the second year of his term, the National Action Charter was created. The Charter came into effect in 2001. It preceded the new constitution. The constitution came into effect in 2002. In the same year, the Press Law of 1979 was revised and the Decree-Law no.47 was created. The new law served to protect the media and freedom of expression. It marked the beginning of modernization and reforms in Bahrain.
Media laws and ethics are meant to manage and maintain professionalism in the media industry. In Bahrain, the media industry is highly regulated to protect the ruling regime and the monarchy (Duffy, “Media Laws and Regulations of the GCC Countries” 8). Despite the freedoms enshrined in the country’s constitution, the Press Law of 2002 is continually used to restrict the rights of the media. The penalties associated with a breach of this law are harsh. They include imprisonment and a fine of 5300 Dollars (2000 Dinars). The terms are barbaric and harsh to the media industry. Criticizing Islam or the King, advocating for change, and inciting action presumed to undermine state security are serious offenses in Bahrain. The journalists and media houses found guilty of these offenses are punished harshly (Duffy, “Arab Media Regulations” 4).
In this paper, the author will discuss the changes made in media laws in Bahrain. The paper will focus on the challenges faced by media houses and journalists operating in the industry. Also, the author will address media protection and activism that aims at creating a free space for journalists in the country. Finally, the paper will analyze the role of social media in Bahrain. The discussions in this paper will revolve around the Bahraini Decree Law Number 47 of 2002.
Summary of Questions to be Addressed in this Paper
In this paper, the author will seek to respond to several questions of the Bahraini Decree Law Number 47 of 2002. The questions include:
- What are some of the challenges affecting the freedom of the press in Bahrain?
- What is the state of media protection and activism in Bahrain, especially from the perspective of the Bahraini Decree Law Number 47 of 2002?
- What is the role played by the media in Bahraini society?
Media Law and Ethics in Bahrain
The Challenges Affecting the Freedom of Press in Bahrain
The country’s penal code and other laws are viewed as tools used by the government to curtail the freedom of the press. Journalists find the laws highly restrictive and have demanded reforms. The violence that accompanied the 2011 rebellion led to the creation of a media reform plan. In 2012, new policies to govern social media were announced. The government approved the media law draft in 2014. The legislation abolishes the imprisonment of media personalities who violate media laws. Until 2016, the restrictive media laws were still under review through an act of parliament (Toumi 3).
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In 2008, the Upper Chamber House in Bahrain proposed to reform the barbaric provisions of the press law of 2002. The efforts met resistance from the conservative Lower Chamber, whose members refused to pass the amendments. In 2010, some members of parliament wanted a change in the laws. The changes did not happen and the bill was still pending in the House by the end of the year (Duffy, “Arab Media Regulations” 20). The continued threats against the media led to the imprisonment of several journalists. For instance, in August 2014, the independent newspaper Al-Wasat reported that the Minister for Information had suspended the media outlet’s online radio reports. The suspension followed a feature reporting on interviews with political detainees (Duffy, “Media Laws and Regulations of the GCC Countries” 9).
A 2012 ranking of press freedom in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) put Bahrain at number 165 out of 179 countries (Duffy, “Media Laws and Regulations of the GCC Countries” 20). The report analyzed various aspects of media freedom in the region. They included the constitution, penal code, and media laws. It also took into consideration the accounts of local newspapers, blog posts, international press watchdogs, and other specific legislation from the countries. The rating was blamed on the relentless crackdown on pro-democracy movements. It was also attributed to trials of human activist defenders and the suppression of the media space.
The introduction of the penal code in 1976 marked the beginning of a dark era for media freedom (Toumi 3). The code had myriad restrictions on media freedom. It was followed by the press laws of 2002. The documents had articles that proscribed harsh treatment for journalists, effectively restricting press freedom in Bahrain. An example is article 19. The article gave the Minister for Information a lot of powers in regulating the press. It allowed the government to prohibit the distribution of materials portraying the political regime in a negative light. Publications encroaching on the states’ official religion were also banned. The laws also introduced strict and harsh penalties for anyone found culpable of the offenses listed in the document.
Another blow to press freedom was the introduction of defamation law in 2006. Such legislation was meant to restrict the public’s access to information. They were also meant to help the ruling regime exercise dictatorship in the country. In 2012, the Minister for State and Information sought to introduce new regulations to govern social media. Contrary to what was expected, the move appeared to strangle the freedom enjoyed by social media (Duffy, “Media Laws and Regulations of the GCC Countries” 5).
Media Protection and Activism in Bahrain
The Bahraini government has forcefully dealt with attempts to safeguard the independence of the media in the state. However, in 2014, the state approved the media law draft. When passed into law, the draft is expected to protect journalists against imprisonment. Besides, the bill does not hold the journalist accountable for opinions stated in good faith (Toumi 5).
The 2011 violence led to widespread calls for media reforms. The plan was to introduce relaxed censorship and programs to support the operations of all media houses in Bahrain (Bahraini Journalists Association 9). The report captured the proposals from the Bahraini Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) in 2011. The commission called for media tolerance and sober discussion of issues on social media.
In the same bill of 2014, journalists are not required to reveal their sources of information. The only exception is when the information published by the media house is considered as a threat to national security (Bahraini Journalists Association 12). The bill also caters for the licensing of journalists in the country. The opportunities given to media outlets are seen as a way of protecting players in the industry (Duffy, “Arab Media Regulations” 8). According to Toumi, King Hamad feels that media independence is required to help the industry play its role in nation-building. Also, it is a move towards the democratization of the country. The press law of 1979 was revised in 2002 with promises of more protection to journalists. Furthermore, the constitution enacted in 2002 was overwhelmingly supported by the citizens. It was meant to reform the media and improve the rights enjoyed by Bahrainis (Bahraini Journalists Association 9).
The Functions of Media in the Bahraini Society
Media and social space act as a mirror to society. According to King Hamad, the independence of media is a prerequisite to democracy. The leader said this during his public address on media law reforms (Toumi 5). What this means is that the freedom enjoyed by the media determines the nature of the decisions made by the citizens. An analysis of Bahrain against the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) of 1966 reveals that the situation in the country is dire. It is apparent that the government is infringing on the citizens’ right to information and freedom of expression (Duffy, “Arab Media Regulations” 8).
Electronic media provides social space users with information regarding the operations of the government. The information provided should be clear and factual. The requirement is made clear under Article 248 of the country’s Penal Code. The law considers reporting false information a crime. During the Arab Spring uprising, social media platforms were used to provide information and to safeguard the welfare of the Bahraini citizens (Duffy, “Media Laws and Regulations of the GCC Countries” 23). The impact and influence of media personalities on the people cannot be ignored. Consequently, journalists should exploit the rights provided for under the constitution responsibly.
It is the responsibility of the government to protect its citizens. To this end, the right to information, freedom of expression, and other human rights should be safeguarded. The observation means that infringing on media freedom amounts to a breach of the citizens’ right to information. The use of barbaric laws by conservative elements in the government has no place in the 21st century. As such, the government of Bahrain needs to protect its citizens from external and internal harms. However, precautions should be taken to avoid violating the rights of the citizens in the process of protecting them. On its part, the media has a responsibility to the public. It should work within the provisions of law and ethics. Media reports should be accurate, factual, and responsible.
Bahraini Journalists Association. Press Law: Decree by-Law No.47 for the Year 2002. 2013, Web.
Duffy, Matt. “Arab Media Regulations: Identifying Restraints on Freedom of the Press in the Laws of Six Arabian Peninsula Countries.” Berkeley Journal of Middle Eastern & Islamic Law, vol. 6, no. 2, 2014, pp. 1-32.
“Media Laws and Regulations of the GCC Countries: Summary, Analysis, and Recommendations.” Doha Centre for Media Freedom, n.d, Web.
Toumi, Habib. “Government Approves Media Law Draft.” Gulf News, 2014, Web.