Journalists denied entry to Bahrain as anniversary of unrest approaches

Yesterday, Bahraini authorities denied visas to a number foreign journalists ahead of the anniversary of Bahrain’s 14 February uprising. Journalists from the New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, the Wall Street Journal, the BBC, Associated Foreign Press, and Al-Jazeera English were all denied visas “due to the high volume of applications”. Local activists expect a violent crackdown on 14 February, as protesters have vowed to return to the now closed Pearl Roundabout.

Among the journalists refused visas are Adam Ellick and  the New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof. Ellick told Index that members of Bahrain’s media office had previously assured him that he would be able to “come back anytime”. This pledge was made during Ellick’s last trip in December 2011, during which both he and Kristof were were detained while reporting on protests.

Kristen Chick, a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor was also denied a visa yesterday. Like Kristof, she also reported from Bahrain during the crackdown.

On Twitter, the authority said it processed applications in the order that they were received, prioritising the earliest applications. The head of the Information Affairs Authority, Sheikh Fawaz, said that the government wanted to “[ensure] a wide range of international media here during this time”.

Last month, the Information Affairs Authority (IAA) sent Index a letter clarifying its stance on “media censorship,” boasting that 700 foreign journalists were allowed to enter the country to cover the Bahrain Air show. It is unclear how many journalists were allowed to enter the country to cover 14 February, but the IAA is insisting that they are allowing many foreign outlets to cover the anniversary of the uprisings. The IAA claim they have granted a number of foreign journalists visas to cover the anniversary, they named Voice of America, BBC, Reuters, Associated Press and Russia El Youm as major news sites allowed to enter the country to cover the anniversary of the uprisings in the tiny country.

Brian Dooley of Human Rights First, who was also denied a visa to enter the country in January, told the Los Angeles Times that “the government is only fuelling suspicions that they don’t want the rest of the world to see what’s going to happen”.

Maryam Al-Khawaja, Head of Foreign Affairs for the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights said that the denied visas were not “a good sign,” and added that it was “even more worrisome that NGOs are not being allowed in either”.

Last month, Dooley, Rick Sollom from Physicians for Human Rights and a delegation from Freedom House were all denied visas, and invited to return at the end of February. The e-mail denying visas to journalists also invited them to return at the end of February, when the “National Commissions work implementing the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI)” would be completed.

The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights anticipates an escalation in the protests on 14 February. Al-Khawaja said “high numbers of protesters will continuously attempt to access what was Pearl Square, and the government will use excessive violence to keep them out.”

Bahrain’s Information Affairs Authority responds to Index

Last week, Bahrain’s Information Affairs Authority wrote to Index, to address our criticisms of media censorship in Bahrain. Let’s go through their clarifications:

Bahrain continues to work closely with the media and to provide them with greater  accessibility to cover events in country. This is reflected through the extensive on-ground coverage during the release of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (“BICI”) report from internationally renowned media outlets including BBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera English and Arabic, Al-Arabiya, and many others in November, which was at the same time that the Index of Censorship (IoC) team was in Bahrain.

It is true that the Bahraini government allowed the international media and rights organisations into the country during the week of the BICI report. But coverage during that week does not necessarily indicate “extensive on-ground coverage”. The country initially allowed journalists to enter the country following the release of the BICI report, including the New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof, who has been openly critical of Bahrain in the past. However, the transparency promised to the international rights community seemed to only be available for a limited period of time, as employees from three international rights organisations were barred from entering the country this month.

The Information Affairs Authority further demonstrated its commitment to “extensive on-ground coverage” by allowing 700 international journalists to attend the Bahrain International Air Show. Indeed, journalists from publications like Business Intelligence Middle East and Trade Arabia covered the show, which took place from 19-21 January. The air show was Bahrain’s first major international event since the start of unrest in February and March of last year, and protesters attempted to disrupt the show, designed to bring back investors to Bahrain — but the backdrop of social unrest was most likely no competition for journalists commissioned to write about the parade of planes, rather than police brutality on the ground.

The letter then goes on to inform us that Bahrain has been implementing the recommendations of the BICI report “publicly and transparently,” and that the implementation can be tracked online. My views on starting a committee to look into implementing the recommendations of a committee can be found here.

The letter ends by looking at Bahrain’s commitment to media openness. The BICI report made the following recommendation related to the media:

1724 (a) – To consider relaxing censorship and allowing the opposition greater access to television broadcasts, radio broadcasts and print media. The continuing failure to provide opposition groups with an adequate voice in the national media risks further polarising the political and ethnic divide.

The Information Affairs Authority then boasts that they have brought in media consultancy IMCA to improve Bahrain’s media based on the BICI’s recommendations, and bring it “up to international standards.”  Sounds great — but like many of the plans for change, information on actual plans for implementation are sparse.

Full text of the letter: