Table of Contents
Bahrain has for decades remained excessively strict when it comes to media laws and freedom of the press. Freedom of the press in relation to other nations has simply been non-existent based on the fact that laws and restrictions surrounding any form of journalism from print to spoken have made journalists pay a hefty price. Jail term has been the highest and most common way to restrict journalists as any violation of the many restrictive press laws ultimately lead to jail time. The restrictions are mostly declared in the penal code and this has made the work of journalists in reporting freely and fairly almost non-existent. These restrictions on what is truly happening in the nation are what ultimately led to upheavals and uprising in this nation from 2009 as people took to the social media to protest these harsh restrictions and punishments over the truth on government issues being exposed. This led to the closure of many opposing blogs and human rights websites citing political incitation and failure to adhere to the media law, the constitution and even the penal code. It was only after the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) investigated and provided a formal report that called for the relaxation of the harsh media law restrictions that changes have started being made by the government. Finally there has been passing of laws that prevent jail term for the journalists as long as they report truthfully, have evidence and uphold journalism ethics. This is a new press law that has covered even the e-media as well.
Press Law in Bahrain
There are several questions that need to be addressed in this paper and the first one is in regards to the exact reason that the King of Bahrain is relaxing the chokehold that has surrounded the media and press freedom for decades. The other reason is on the exact steps the government has taken in a bid to change the press laws and even guarantee the lack of jail term for the journalists as was the case in the recent past (Duffy, 2016). This question is also linked to finding out the extent of the new press law and the areas that have been granted the little freedom. In addition to the above, questions are also raised on how far the government will be willing to go with the press freedom in the new press law and the freedom of information as well as communication. Lastly, there are questions on the benefits as well as the advantages the new press laws to the media as well as the whole nation in general. All these are questions whose answers will be provided in the discussion below in as much detail as possible and with the history and background information of the nation in as far as the press freedom is concerned can be explained. The changes that have been made so far by the King of this nation (with the help of a team of experts) is what is going to also provide the answers to the questions and the steps that are further recommended to be taken into consideration.
Bahrain is among the nations in the world (and specifically in the Arab nations) that has had a very poor relationship with journalists. It has never recognized the positive role the media has on its government and the people and hence the reason there have been many harsh and restrictive laws on journalists in what they are allowed to report or even how to report it. Publishing or reporting on corruption in government for example has been an issue punishable by jail term. Any form of opposition to the government has never been met with good terms and has landed many journalists in jail as well as denied broadcasting licenses to media companies. The media communication law in Bahrain, specifically the decree law no. 47 of 2002 that is very restrictive to journalism is one of the laws that the current King is changing. This is only one of the very restrictive journalism laws that has made journalists have their freedom of the press limited to the extent of broadcasting only what the government wants them to. Any opposition made to such laws and reporting of the truth about any corruption in government is at the risk of a journalist going to jail and also being heavily fined. There are journalists and even non-governmental official sites and even personal blogs that have been blocked simply because they published information that was in opposition with government leaders and public officials. This has led to Bahrain being ranked very highly on the lack of freedom of the press compared to other Arab nations along the gulf such as Kuwait and United Arabs Emirates (Duffy, 2016). The negative publicity and criticisms of how the government runs its affairs including in the courts of laws is what the government has been aiming at covering for the longest time possible. The curtailing of this freedom of the press and harassing the journalists by heavily fining them as well as exposing them to jail time discouraged journalists from their real goal and making any difference in the society and specifically in this nation.
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Previously before the uprising and the report by the BICI, Bahrain restricted any form of online journalism and especially if it was to oppose the actions of government, report on negative issues in government offices as well as against public officers. This heavily restricted any social media closing down many social media sites to avoid the criticisms as well as wide sharing of information about the nation with the rest of the nation and internationally as well. In short internet journalism was as much curtailed in freedom of speech as were the rest of the media platforms. This is another reason for the Arab Spring that rocked the Arab nations as the few people that managed to crack the restrictions of the social media utilized it to incite the rest of the people (Huff & Roth, 2013). The new press law that was a way for the nation to relax its tight leash it has on journalists and people using social media and other internet sites is the first move towards media and journalism freedom. It is a move that is aimed at ensuring the first steps towards the positive role of the media is being almost freely provided to both the national and international community. The acceptance of using social media (as long as it does not harm any individuals or government directly) is the first move towards this media freedom that has never been in existence in the nation. This is a move that is aimed at preventing future uprisings as the one experienced a few years ago (Shehabi & Jones, 2015).
One of the major changes that King Hamad Bin Eisa Al Khalifa has implemented in the new press laws and which has been met with a lot of encouragement by the media fraternity is the elimination of the jail term for the journalists (Duffy, 2016). This is a move towards ensuring freedom of information as well as communication in the nation for the journalists. In the past, and based on the penal code, journalists were being threatened to jail term for any major and even minor offense and breach of the penal code. This is despite the fact that what they were printing or even communicating orally was the truth. It is the fear of this jail term that led to journalists failing to oppose the government or even print the truth despite having evidence to support it. It is also the increased jail terms and fines that made opposition journalists have cases on libel and slander presented in courts and the truth failed to see the light of day. All these however are starting to be in the past as the new King of this nation is finally starting to agree to grant the media fraternity a little freedom of expression and powers of journalism to report. This is however only limited freedom but it is a good start to moving towards press freedom that other nations freely are granted by their governments and are even protected by their constitution and penal codes unlike is the case in Bahrain.
Even though there are changes that have already taken place in regards to press freedom, the only major thing that has been done is eliminate the jail term for the journalists. However, the issue of curtailing what they report is still present. On the other hand however, the other main achievement of journalists from the changes in the press law is the fact that they are allowed to protect their sources as long as the information reported has evidence and elements of truth. Previously, the government demanded the journalists to reveal their sources and especially on any news that was negatively affecting the public officers and ministers in the government. This is what drove some of the journalists to be reporting outside of Bahrain as they could avoid facing the consequences of government if they were not directly in the nation (Epstein, 2015). These changes are therefore being expected to be the first towards securing freedom of the press.
The changes that have been proposed by the King and have started being implemented are geared towards relatively more press freedom in their reporting of any news related to government and previously restricted and sanctioned topics (CNN, 2013). The King and his government despite taking too long to act on the BICI report and recommendations has finally started protecting the journalists as long as they stick to printing or reporting news that are truthful and have evidence that is substantiated. This press freedom even in the internet and e-media in general will a long way into changing the negative status and ranking of the nation among the gulf nations about the lack of media freedom to having a little of media freedom. The reaction by the journalism industry on these press laws have been open jubilation and especially on the lack of jail term (Toumi, 2014). This will ensure that their news and reports will start having the positive effect in the society that they have been yearning. This will however mean that they have to get evidence before printing or broadcasting if the press freedom they have been awarded is to be implemented. They also have to abide to the journalism ethics set by the penal code and the constitution of the nation as part of the deal towards the new press law implementation. These BICI report recommendations and implementation is to thank for all these changes being implemented in Bahrain.
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