Bahrain’s Assault on Free Press

by Emile Nakhleh

The Bahraini government’s decision on June 4 to shutter al-Wasat indefinitely yet again underscores the regime’s on-going assault on the freedom of expression and independent media. The information ministry claimed in its statement that it shut down the newspaper for its “violation of the law and repeatedly publishing information that sows division in society and affects Bahrain’s relations with other states.” The claim is bogus and groundless, as previous official statements against al-Wasat and other mainstream peaceful opposition and electronic media outlets have shown.

The decision is not surprising given the regime’s history of repression and systematic human rights abuses. What is surprising, however, is that neither President Donald J. Trump nor Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, both of whom have traveled recently to the Persian Gulf, have protested Bahrain’s draconian measure against the only newspaper in the country that does not kowtow to the regime. The Trump administration’s deafening silence in the defense of free press in Bahrain is appalling, and once again sends a green signal to the authoritarian regimes in Bahrain and the neighboring countries to persecute their peoples at will.

In announcing the closure, Al-Wasat’s editor-in-chief, Mansoor al-Jamri, stated, “This time it is much more different. The three earlier suspensions lasted between one to three days. This fourth suspension has become a permanent one.”

Twenty days after Bahraini’s information ministry ordered the closure, the chairman of al-Wasat’s board informed the newspaper’s employees, including its editor in chief, that he was terminating their employment contracts because of the loss incurred by the information ministry’s decision to close the newspaper.

Why al-Wasat?

Mansoor al-Jamri returned from London to Bahrain to run al-Wasat in June 2002 during the euphoric period of the so-called reform campaign touted by emir Hamad in the 2001 National Action Charter. The newspaper was licensed to operate as an independent publication and was committed to a reform agenda. In the past 15 years, despite frequent grumblings from the regime, al-Wasat remained a peaceful advocate for a democratic agenda, much like the one promised by Emir and later King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the then new ruler of Bahrain.

Mansoor al-Jamri, a British-educated Bahraini and a moderate Shia citizen of Bahrain, lived in the United Kingdom in self-imposed exile waiting for the advent of a new era of rational political dialogue before he could return home. Emir Hamad promised such an opening in his 2001 National Action Charter. Bahrainis as well as the international community pinned much hope on the young ruler’s desire to effect comprehensive political reform in the country for all citizens among both the Shia majority and the Sunni minority. He invited Bahrainis residing overseas to return and participate in the reform experiment through peaceful means in the context of free speech and assembly and political activism. Civil society institutions and social clubs would participate in the political process in lieu of political parties.

Al-Jamri believed in the promise, returned to Bahrain, and launched al-Wasat newspaper on September 7, 2002. The newspaper quickly found a wide readership because of its fair and balanced news coverage, editorials, and columns. Respected Bahrainis from across the ideological spectrum wrote regularly as guest columnists. Al-Jamri accepted al-Khalifa family rule but persistently and consistently called for full implementation of Hamad’s reformist agenda as expressed in in the National Action Charter.

Al-Wasat advocated for opening the political system to all citizens based on peace, dignity, and the rule of law. Unfortunately for al-Jamri and al-Wasat, the regime began to backtrack on the reform agenda, which many at the time attributed to deep divisions within the ruling family and the anti-reform pressures from abroad, primarily from Saudi Arabia.

Some within the ruling family, including the perennial conservative prime minister, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman, brother of the previous Emir and uncle of the new one, strongly opposed the new King’s tilt toward reform and worked to undermine it. The prime minister, the longest serving unelected prime minister in the world, opposed all reform because he believed it would weaken the family’s hold on power.

The other faction within the family, which generally supported reform under the ruling family’s umbrella, was led by Hamad’s son and later Crown Prince Salman. He and his supporters argued that inclusive governance offered the best chance for internal stability. If the family hopes to survive, it must engage the majority of the people.

Caught in the middle of these powerful competing forces, Hamad caved in. The only real reform that emerged from the National Action Charter was that Hamad declared himself King Hamad (versus Emir) and his country the Kingdom of Bahrain.

Pro-democracy groups and activists, including al-Wasat and al-Jamri, were disappointed by the stalled reform agenda but persisted in their wishful betting on the new king. They hoped that once his son, the newly designated Crown Prince Salman, established a confident power position vis a vis the other anti-reform traditionalists within the family he would be able to steer his father toward genuine reform.

Al-Wasat persisted in its push for political reform, non-sectarian national dialogue, equality under the law, and fair and free national elections. Although the newspaper and its editor-in-chief remained faithful to their peaceful approach to political change for over a decade, they became the bête noire of the regime. They continued to publish, albeit on a precarious footing.

Since the Arab Spring, the rise of the 14 February Youth Coalition in Bahrain in 2011, and the unfolding of the confrontational “Days of Rage,” regime policies against peaceful protesters became bloodier and more draconian. The security services and regime-condoned anti-terror squads muzzled all voices of opposition, including the press. In response to mounting pressure and seemingly fearing for his survival, King Hamad and his uncle, the prime minister, urged Saudi Arabia to send its military to Bahrain to combat dissidents. The regime used sectarianism to subjugate the Shia majority and preserve minority Sunni rule over the Shia majority. The Saudis viewed their presence in Bahrain as a signal for open season on the Shia population.

As the uprising continued, al-Wasat and al-Jamri walked a tight rope between their commitment to reform through peaceful means and the hardening of the anti-reform faction within the ruling family. Thousands of people were arrested on dubious charges, tortured, and convicted in sham trials. Al-Wasat was banned three times since 2011 on the spurious claim that it undermined domestic stability. The June 4 ban has put the newspaper out of business indefinitely.

Why Now?

The regime’s decision against al-Wasat was empowered by the Saudi, UAE, Egyptian, and Bahraini coalition against Qatar. The ruling family viewed its shuttering of al-Wasat as part of the four dictatorships’ campaign against free press in the region. The regime has viewed its decision to ban the newspaper and the four countries’ demand that Qatar close Al Jazeera as two sides of the same coin.

These dictators loathe free press—print, digital, and television—because they refuse to be held accountable to their people for their corruption and repression. They abhor freedoms of speech and thought and cannot abide any media other than the most pliant and sycophantic.

The rulers of these states perhaps thought that their assault on the press would get lost amid the vengeful actions and public relations campaign they have waged against Qatar. They also calculated, so far correctly, that President Trump, particularly after his enthusiastic embrace of the Saudi leadership, would ignore their war on the media and would share their view that independent and honest media only purvey “fake news.” Since starting operations in 2002, al-Wasat and al-Jamri did not purvey “fake news” or advocate sedition. Nor did they abandon their commitment to peaceful national dialogue.

The four autocratic regimes failed to realize that although Trump led them to believe they had his support, his administration does not have a single voice on the feud in the Persian Gulf. Washington has been urging the Saudis and their partners to walk back from the confrontation with Qatar. American intelligence has concluded that the UAE was behind the hacking of Qatar’s state news agency and the spread of “fake news” in the name of the Qatari emir. Nor did Secretary Tillerson acquiesce in their demand to close Al Jazeera. Their aggression against Qatar has backfired. Al Jazeera will continue to broadcast. So far, al-Wasat and al-Jamri remain the only casualty in the new Arab “cold war.” Will the Bahraini people allow this decision to stand?

Photo: Mansoor al-Jamri (courtesy Mahmood al-Yousif via Flickr)

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.