13 August 2019 – Yesterday, fourteen NGOs including BIRD, Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) delivered a joint-letter to Amal Clooney urging her to speak out against the repression of the media and restrictions on freedom of expression in Bahrain. In April, Clooney was announced by former-Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt as the UK’s Special Envoy on Media Freedom and last month appeared as a key speaker at the FCO’s inaugural Global Conference for Media Freedom in London.
The signatories asked Clooney to use her position to press the British government to call for the release of the six journalists currently imprisoned in Bahrain, including photojournalist Hassan Qambar, who was sentenced to over 100 years in prison for his covering of local protests.
They also called on her to encourage Bahrain to relax restrictions on freedom of expression by ending the ban on criticising the King and lifting vaguely worded cybercrime legislation designed to “silence the right to freedom of expression” on social media. In a rare move, social media giant Twitter criticised the legislation, describing it as a “significant risk to freedom of expression and journalism.”
Referencing the tightly controlled media landscape in Bahrain, the signatories entreated Clooney to pressure Bahrain into rescinding the ban on Al-Wasat, Bahrain’s only independent newspaper which was forcibly closed in 2017 and to allow immediate visits from the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteurs on freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.
The letter also criticised Bahrain’s ambassador to the UK, Sheikh Fawaz bin Mohamad Al Khalifa, drawing attention to his history of suppressing media freedom in Bahrain. As president of the Information Affairs Authority during the Arab Spring, Sheikh Fawaz oversaw the censorship of the press and the deportation of foreign-national journalists, causing Bahrain to fall 46 places on RSF’s Press Freedom Index. Since 2012, Bahrain has fallen a further two places and now sits at 167th out 180 countries.
Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, Director of Advocacy at BIRD, commented: “The creeping criminalisation of free speech in Bahrain has continued unabated for far too long. Since 2011, journalists have been arbitrarily detained, tortured and even murdered for exercising their right to free expression and many remain behind bars to this day, while perpetrators go unpunished. We appeal to Amal Clooney to use her position as Special Envoy on Media Freedom to shed vital light on this issue and keep Bahrain as a priority for her framework.”