Bahrain questions three journalists after crackdown

MANAMA (Reuters) – Bahrain’s public prosecutor began questioning on Monday three senior journalists sacked from the Gulf kingdom’s only opposition newspaper over accusations of falsifying news about the government’s crackdown on protesters.

Bahrain has seen some of the worst unrest in its history since mostly Shi’ite Muslim protesters took to the streets in February, inspired by uprisings that toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, to demand a bigger say in the Sunni-ruled kingdom.

The government invited in Saudi troops, imposed martial law and launched a crackdown on protesters on March 16 in which more than 300 people have been detained and dozens are missing. At least 13 protesters and four policemen have been killed.

Al Wasat was suspended on April 2 over charges that it had falsified news, but resumed publishing the next day after its editor-in-chief Mansoor al-Jamri, its British managing editor Walid Noueihed and head of local news Aqeel Mirza agreed to resign. On April 4, two Iraqi journalists working for Al Wasat, Raheem al-Kaabi and Ali al-Sherify, were deported without trial.

Jamri, Noueihed and Mirza said they received a fax on Thursday from the government’s media arm, the Information Affairs Authority, notifying them that they would be questioned by the public prosecutor over the alleged fabrication of news.

Bahrain’s media law prohibits the imprisonment of journalists but allows for fines. However, it was not clear what sentence might be imposed under martial law. The defendants said they had been allowed access to their lawyers.

Jamri, who was questioned first, said he admitted to publishing six incorrect articles as accused. However, he argued that the false news was emailed to Al Wasat from the same IP address as part of an apparent campaign to plant disinformation.

He said this news slipped through the editing net as Al Wasat, whose printing press was attacked by thugs on March 14 and whose offices were inside the curfew zone imposed the same week, was operating on a skeleton staff.

“They were asking how we did our work and who was responsible but I said I was, because we had reduced our staff. We were working under exceptional circumstances,” Jamri told Reuters after his hearing, which lasted more than two hours.

“They asked why we processed these six news articles. I said they were written in a deceiving way, they arrived at night and they came from the same IP address which we discovered after Bahrain TV’s program,” he said by telephone. He was referring to a program in which state television first aired the accusations against the newspaper.

“The mistake was not done on purpose. Someone trapped us,” Jamri added.

MEDIA LANDSCAPE

Al Wasat began publication in 2002, after King Hamad released political prisoners, allowed exiles to return to Bahrain and promised to launch a program of political reforms including wide-ranging constitutional changes.

Jamri, a prominent Bahraini commentator and driving force behind Al Wasat, returned from exile to found the newspaper.

A British-educated engineer, he was one of the leading moderate voices in Bahrain during weeks of protests — significantly more moderate than the mainstream Shi’ite opposition party Wefaq.

In the period leading up to the crackdown, when Wefaq had set a long list of conditions for dialogue with the royal family, Jamri — son of a respected Shi’ite cleric who led Bahrain’s opposition movement in the 1990s — called in his daily column for talks.

Al Wasat did not back calls by hardliners for the overthrow of the royal family, calling instead for political reforms.

The arrival of Al Wasat almost a decade ago transformed the media landscape in Bahrain, broaching topics that had previously been taboo and making life uncomfortable for several ministers.

While it is widely described as an opposition newspaper, Al Wasat is not funded by any dissident groups. It is owned by a consortium of leading Bahraini businessmen.

Bahrain questions three journalists after crackdown