Bahrain questions three journalists after crackdown

Reuters , Monday 11 Apr 2011

Bahrain's public prosecutor interrogates three editors for violating media law after already heightened pressure against Al Wasat newspaper

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 the 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 16 March in which more than 300 people have been detained and dozens are missing. At least 13 protesters and four police officers have been killed in clashes.

Al Wasat was suspended on 2 April 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 4 April 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 in relation to 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 full access to their lawyers.

They will admit to publishing six incorrect articles, as accused. However, they will argue that all of the false news was emailed to Al Wasat from the same IP address as part of an apparent campaign to plant disinformation.

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

Al Wasat began publication in 2002, after King Hamad released political prisoners, allowed exiles to return to Bahrain and promised to launch a programme 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.

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