Campaigning groups send open letter to the foreign secretary complaining about the human rights record of Bahrain’s envoy to Britain
Leading press freedom groups have sent a letter to foreign secretary Boris Johnson raising concerns about the human rights record of Bahrain’s ambassador to the UK.
They urge Johnson to take up the matter with the ambassador, Sheikh Fawaz bin Mohammad Al-Khalifa, a member of Bahrain’s royal family.
He was formerly president of Bahrain’s information affairs authority (IAA), the state’s media regulator and operator of Bahrain TV and the state’s news agency. It also issues licences to journalists.
The letter argues that while he was chief of the IAA presidency during the Arab Spring period, between 2010-12, Fawaz used his power to restrict press freedom. At the same time, the Bahraini government “systematically cracked down on political and civil freedoms.”
It points to the IAA’s suspension in April 2011 of Al Wasat, the country’s only independent newspaper, and the authority’s involvement in the detention of an Iraqi journalist who was beaten and deported.
The letter – signed by Reporters Without Borders (RSB), Index on Censorship and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) – also highlights the case of Nazeeha Saeed, a Bahraini journalist who was prosecuted for “illegal reporting” after her licence renewal was refused.
She cannot leave Bahrain because she is subject to a travel ban. For 12 years, she worked as a foreign correspondent for French news agencies, plus France24 and Radio Monte Carlo Doualiya. Fawaz’s embassy, says the letter, has publicly supported her prosecution and it accuses Fawaz of acting against her interests.
The letter says of Fawaz: “His continued public attempts to mislead on the cases of journalists like Ms Saeed are indications that neither he, nor the country he represents, share the key British values of the right to free speech and individual liberty…
“The kingdom of Bahrain’s choice of a person with a key role in repressing freedom of speech as their ambassador to the United Kingdom reflects Bahrain’s unchanged, poor attitudes towards freedom of speech and human rights more generally.”
It urges Johnson to “raise these issues surrounding Sheikh Fawaz’s past and current involvement in the violations of press freedom with the government of Bahrain.”
The letter cites Bahrain’s fall in RSB’s press freedom index ranking during Fawaz’s IAA presidency. In 2009, the year before he took over, it was 119th. By the time he left, in 2012, it was 165th.
When Fawaz presented his ambassadorial credentials to the Queen in December 2015 he spoke of the shared commitment of the two governments in fighting the global scourge of terrorism.
Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, BIRD’s director of advocacy, said: “The role of this ambassador in actively repressing free journalists and media… must be investigated… If the UK is serious about supporting free press globally, they must address this with their ally, Bahrain.”
Updated at 5.30pm: The Bahraini embassy issued a statement at 5pm in which it said that the letter sent by the press freedom groups was “littered with clear fabrications, inaccuracies and innuendo.”
It stated: “The claim that Sheikh Fawaz bin Mohamed Al-Khalifa, as the president of the IAA, was involved in abusing a journalist is ludicrous.”
The newspaper Al Wasat “was indeed suspended in 2011, for a single day, following allegations it had attempted to mislead readers by passing off unrelated local footage as current local events – a point the paper’s own board accepted.
“The case of Nazeeha Saeed – which appears to have resulted from her own failure to renew the appropriate credentials as a foreign correspondent – is very recent, and well after the time that the ambassador was at the IAA.”
The embassy’s response continued: “What is clear, however, is that the IAA never attempted to ‘crack down’ on media freedoms. Indeed, Bahrain’s government is committed to a diverse and vibrant media sector in which all parts of society can make their voice heard, even in the face of the current international challenges, and efforts by certain regional actors to stoke sectarian tensions.”
And it concluded: “Bahrain’s commitment to media freedom is fully consistent with the values we share with the United Kingdom, and indeed with the ambassador’s own views on the issue… During the ambassador’s time at the IAA he actually abolished the department responsible for media censorship.”