BJA issues report on status of Bahraini media during COVID-19 pandemic

Bahraini Journalists Association (BJA) has issued a report on the status of the Bahraini press during the coronavirus crisis (Covid 19), in conjunction with the World Press Freedom Day and Bahrain’s celebration of the 82 years since the establishment of the first political newspaper in the Arabian Gulf.

The report indicates that despite the gains achieved by the Bahraini press for eight decades, it is currently going through exceptional circumstances caused by COVID-19 and its repercussions on the media.

The pandemic has affected the various Bahraini media institutions, but they are still resilient and are facing all the challenges and assuming major roles to fulfill their responsibilities, the report added.

“World Press Freedom Day coincides this year with Bahrain’s celebration of the 82nd anniversary of the establishment of the first political newspaper in the Arabian Gulf region,” the report said.

“And despite all the advancement Bahraini journalism has witnessed in the past 8 decades, it is now going through unprecedented circumstances due to the impact of the global spread of the COVID-19. Even though the pandemic took a toll on various Bahraini media institutions, they are still standing strong facing all challenges and carrying out their responsibility during these conditions. The Bahrain Journalists Association report for this year focuses on the impact of COVID-19 on freedom of opinion and expression in the Kingdom of Bahrain, as this pandemic has affected various sectors globally, and many civil liberties in countries across the world have been affected disproportionately by the spread of this virus; while this did not prevent peoples and various civil society institutions from defending freedoms.”

This report covers the period from May 2020 to May 2021, and is divided into four main sections: The legal environment, Media interaction with the pandemic focuses on how Bahraini journalism dealt with the pandemic, Freedom of press and Conditions of media institutions.

1.  The legal environment

The Bahraini constitution is the legal foundation regulating the press in Bahrain, as the following 3 articles of the constitution form the cornerstone of the freedoms of opinion and expression; Article no. 22 of the constitution confirms that the freedom of conscience is absolute, while Article no. 23 protects the freedom of opinion and expression, stating that “The right to freedom of expression (…) is guaranteed, Everyone has the right to express his opinion and publish it by word of mouth, in writing or otherwise”, and Article no. 24 of the Bahraini constitution confirms that “the freedoms of press, printing and publishing are guaranteed”. The Bahraini press is currently operating under the law no. 47 regulating press, printing and publishing, issued in 2002.

Despite all the liberties provided under this law, an update is now required to cater for the fast-changing developments of the media sector, namely digital media and social media, which need legal regulation to enable individuals and institutions to use them for journalistic purposes.

The current legislation directs on how to deal with complaints related to publishing cases, as the Article no. 81 stipulates that no interrogation of a reporter, columnist, or editor in chief should take place without notifying the Minister of Information Affairs and the Bahraini Journalists Association. A representative of the newspaper or the Association, chosen by the journalist himself, must be present during interrogation. This article is a safeguard for journalists during trials on publishing cases.

It is also noteworthy that most cases against journalists in Bahrain are filed by individuals or private corporations, not government entities, and 98% of those cases were won by the journalists, which reflects the government’s acceptance of the topics published by the media in the aim of developing the performance of the government and governmental entities.

While the current media law does not cover the use of social and digital media, the government allows all journalists, media entities, private entities, and NGOs to use those platforms with no prior or subsequent restrictions, given that those electronic news platforms are registered with the concerned authorities. In addition to that, the Cabinet approved, during its session of 5 April 2021, a memorandum submitted by the ministerial committee for legal and legislative affairs concerning the law regulating press, printing and publishing.

The legal infrastructure never impeded journalism in Bahrain during the pandemic, on the contrary, this infrastructure was proven to be flexible enough to cater for those exceptional conditions, which allowed Bahraini press to continue operating throughout the pandemic. Additionally, this time has allowed newspapers to develop their online platforms and their social media content.

2.  Media interaction with the pandemic

The pandemic presented many challenges to Bahraini press, as it has changed the way media institutions deal with local issues; media content became more focused on the government’s efforts in combatting COVID-19 more than anything else. However, it was noticed that, since the second half of 2020, media institutions have adapted to the new situation and returned to covering various sectors. This shift in focus deserves recognition for the sense of national responsibility those media entities enjoy. Bahraini newspapers have largely interacted with the developments of the COVID-19 pandemic, and allocated pages of its daily editions for this issue. Media coverage of the pandemic reached 56% and had a big role in raising awareness among the community. The Bahraini government did not pose any restrictions on Bahraini press for their coverage of various topics during the pandemic, and the relationship was very positive between the two parties; government entities allocated multiple platforms to ensure constant flow of information and organized a number of media briefings to constantly update the media. Newspapers were the main partner of the Public Awareness Campaign to Combat Coronavirus (COVID-19) by publishing awareness material and updates on the health situation in the country, as well as the focused efforts of the National Medical Taskforce, through its printed pages as well as on its online platforms.

3.  Freedom of press

Freedom of press in Bahrain was not affected during the pandemic, and journalists as well as columnists continued to enjoy the vast liberties accorded to them. There are no forms of prior or subsequent restrictions on any published media materials. Columnists have had a large margin of liberty, allowing them to freely express their opinions in their columns and social media during the pandemic. No complaints were recorded concerning freedom of expression restrictions by columnists or reporters. During the period from May 2020 to May 2021, no complaints were recorded against any reporter or columnist, and no cases were filed against any newspaper or media entity.

The Bahrain Journalist Association closely monitored all allegations of restricting freedom of press, and any procedures that might limit a journalist’s work. During this time, journalists and columnists have written actively using their right to freedom of expression over social media, with no restrictions or prosecution, including about the performance of public and private institutions during the pandemic.

4.  Conditions of media institutions

All media entities in Bahrain have suffered the repercussions of the global spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially financially, due to the decline in advertisement. However, daily local newspapers in Bahrain (four in Arabic, and twp in English) continue to operate, and did not have to shut down nor merge. This reflects the keenness of the newspaper owners to carry on with their media roles despite the difficult financial situation.

It was noticed that the size of the paper version of those newspapers was affected, as the number of pages were reduced to 16, reflecting the financial struggle of newspapers to make ends meet. On the other hand, those newspapers have harnessed the situation and were able to expand their reachability by upgrading their online content.

Those newspapers have also used technology to their advantage as they were able to hold many discussions and interviews through video conferencing technology, to the point it became a weekly staple on their agenda. As for reporters’ employment, the pandemic did not lead to mass layoffs, and the numbers recorded are usually individual and limited cases.

Around 600 individuals work in journalism in Bahrain, of whom half are females. They all enjoy stable and equal wages.

Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic created an exceptional situation for Bahraini journalism bearing many challenges, however it has also brought many opportunities that ought to be harnessed. From this preliminary review, Bahraini journalism is expected to continue, and develop to keep up with the developments of the field, namely digital media, in the era of post-COVID-19. Some of those newspapers might soon shift to being completely paperless. It is not expected that the pandemic will affect freedom of press in Bahrain due to the vast liberties it is afforded, especially in light of important impending amendments to the Bahraini press law, following parliament discussions in the near future. Those amendments are expected to focus on new additions that would regulate all aspects of digital media.

It is also important to focus on the work conditions of journalists, so as they are not affected by the same circumstances faced by media entities around the world, which imposes a serious note that must be considered when exploring the next phase of journalistic work in light of the upcoming recovery period.

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