Mansoor al-Jamri stands among the four journalists* who on November 22, 2011 will be honoured in New York with the Committee to Protect Journalists’ 2011 International Press Freedom Awards.
“The CPJ Awards recognise the work of courageous journalists who have produced quality journalism under challenging circumstances,” says Mohamed Abdel Dayem, coordinator of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) programme at the press freedom organisation.
“The annual ceremony is a largely attended event, well covered in the media, and it gives our awardees an international platform to amplify their voice,” he adds.
Mansoor al-Jamri, 50, is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Al-Wasat, Bahrain’s leading Arabic independent daily, as well as a regular contributor to other media outlets.
With a staff of 200 employees, Al-Wasat has a daily circulation of 15,000 printed copies and attracts a total of 60,000 readers.
An independent voice
In January and February 2011, civil protests known as the Arab Spring swept across several countries of the MENA region, often resulting in clashes between security forces and citizens. In Bahrain, Al-Wasat called demonstrators and authorities for moderation.
“On March 15, just before the martial law was declared in Bahrain, the printing press of Al-Wasat was attacked by armed men and blockaded,” al-Jamri recalls, “and later that month, the Information Ministry claimed that Al-Wasat was publishing ‘false news’ intended to incite unrest among the majority Shiite population.”
“This accusation was used as a pretext for filing a case against the newspaper,” al-Jamri explains.
In April, the Bahraini authorities closed down Al-Wasat and al-Jamri was called to answer criminal charges and forced to resign due to government pressure and harassment.
Later in April, Al-Wasat was allowed to re-open under state control. Amani Al-Maskati, senior journalist at Al-Wasat, remembers the period around al-Jamri’s dismissal as a trying time. “We were all shocked when al-Jamri was criminally charged. We felt unsafe working without him. We were publishing stories anonymously. Two days after he left, a colleague and I were investigated”, she comments. “Despite everything, we believed al-Jamri would return and none of us left Al-Wasat.”
When the martial law was lifted in August, Al-Wasat’s board of directors reinstated al-Jamri as editor-in-chief.
CPJ’s MENA Programme monitored the case of al-Jamri closely as raised concerns about press freedom. “The Bahraini government resorted to several repressive means in an effort to silence Al-Wasat”, Mohamed Abdel Dayem points out.
“Restrictions were imposed on al-Jamri and extended to his wife, who is also a journalist, and to staff at Al-Wasat.”
Intimidation and harassment
The wave of civil protests in Bahrain, which lasted from February to March 2011, was mainly motivated by demands for greater political freedom and the abolition of discriminatory practises of the ruling Sunni minority against the country’s Shiite majority. Protestors went as far as to call to put an end to the rule of the Al Khalifa monarchy.
The Bahraini regime has a long record of economic, political and social violations and oppressive security measures, with the monarchy exercising a tight control over the government and the security apparatus.
Over the years, Al-Wasat has suffered harassment and political pressure from government officials. During the protests, most of its journalists and photographers faced various forms of abuse by pro-government forces, from detention to interrogation, torture and beatings.“I was banned from travelling twice,” Al-Maskati recounts.
“Once, I was taken to a police station where I was interrogated for nine hours”. As a journalist covering human rights issues, Al-Maskati says she finds it very challenging to write about events of torture and corruption, especially when they involve high placed officials.
Al-Jamri has been subject to intimidation for his work. “There were people harassing me at my doorstep, others sending me threatening messages, or launching campaigns against Al-Wasat on social media or attempting to stop me from covering news associated with press freedom”, he says.
Al-Jamri founded the newspaper ten years ago, at a time when Bahrain went through a period of modest liberalisation as part of measures undertaken under a national accord.
“In 2001, I was invited by the king of Bahrain to participate in the reform process, so I decided to create a newspaper that would become the voice of reform in Bahrain”, al-Jamri explains. “Al-Wasat showed ‘the other view’ in that it presented the official position but also that of the opposition, as well as the view of NGOs and of other political movements aspiring for reforms.”
With the outbreak of anti-regime demonstrations earlier this year, the Bahraini government strongly increased its control over the media and Al-Wasat became a target. “In its effort to remain non-partisan and report news with an independent voice, the paper was seen as a ‘threat’ by the authorities, something to be silenced”, Dayem says, “and we saw what they did.”
Senior journalist Al-Maskati points out that Al-Wasat initially came under attack from both the government and opposition groups.
“I think the criticism directed towards the newspaper was an obvious indicator of its independence and neutrality”, she says, “Soon, Al-Wasat attracted the attention of protesters and government officials. I believe they recognised the impact of its non-sectarian, balanced coverage.”
“After the start of the protests, most newspapers in the country started presenting exclusively the government view,” al-Jamri says.
“Al-Wasat is arguably the only independent daily in Bahrain,” Dayem notes.
“When the events escalated in Bahrain, the circulation of Al-Wasat’s news stories jumped to a rating of over 30 percent, a significant increase in the daily’s popularity,” al-Jamri says. “We were at the frontline of the news.”
In addition, al-Jamri argues that Al-Wasat’s moderate stance was met with a positive response by the more moderate civil protesters and government officials supportive of reforms. “We were covering the demonstrations but also showing the position of pro-reform officials within the government, and we were including the international outlook on what was happening in Bahrain,” he continues.
“Stronger than before”
Al-Wasat has resisted and defied media repression in different ways. CPJ’s MENA Programme coordinator Dayem indicates that for many years, the newspaper provided a professional coverage on a number of sensitive issues including sectarian discrimination, corruption, institutional discrimination against the Shiite majority, and issues of concern to Bahraini readers.
“People collectively recognise quality journalism when they see it,” Dayem stresses. “And our job at CPJ is to make sure that journalists work freely and that the public has access to reliable news.”
“Al-Wasat is operating in a country which is still undergoing significant social unrest, in a very politically sensitive and inflamed environment,” he adds. “Al-Jamri’s commitment and that of the broader board of directors and other journalists have been greatly put to the test.”
Al-Maskati praises al-Jamri’s prize distinction: “I consider the CPJ award the best response to the false allegations against Al-Wasat as well as a testimony of its credibility. Al-Wasat has returned even stronger than before the protests after overcoming a very hard period, from the closure to the false allegations and al-Jamri’s resignation. We are very proud of Dr. al-Jamri.”
“I am honoured by this award and I dedicate it to all the people who contributed to the Arab Spring and brought Bahrain in line with the uprisings,” al-Jamri concludes. “The CPJ award comes to vindicate the mission of Al-Wasat. It is also a recognition that we are all part of a global community that shares the same universal principles based on respect for human rights.”
“I am proud to contribute to the right side of history.”
*The three other recipients of CPJ’s 2011 International Press Freedom Awards are Natalya Radina (Charter 97, Belarus), Javier Valdez Cárdenas (Ríodoce, Mexico), and Umar Cheema (The News, Pakistan).
‘This story is published with permission from the European Journalism Centre’