Bahrain’s government suspended the country’s only opposition newspaper Sunday, accusing it of printing false information about the ongoing democratic protest movement and of plagiarizing.
The newspaper’s closure comes amid a campaign of intimidation by the government to suppress the protests that began in February demanding democratic reform and an end to discrimination against the kingdom’s majority Shiite population. Al Wasat is the only newspaper in Bahrain without connections to the ruling family, and was one of few domestic news sources for information on the protest movement.
“The paper has adhered to lies, falsification and plagiarism as its guiding principles for the sake of deceiving its readers through publishing fabricated stories and photos, and thus directly and deliberately posing a real threat to the kingdom's security and stability,” said Bahrain's state news agency, referring to an exposé it ran about Al Wasat.
Mansoor Al Jamri, the paper’s editor until Sunday, said the state news agency's exposé was an orchestrated attempt to shut the paper down and get rid of him.
“There are external sources, there are people who are targeting Al Wasat and they want it out of independent journalism,” he said. “They accused me of fabricating news. It was planted in our system. … They sent us news, and they penetrated our system.”
The newspaper’s board removed Mr. Jamri Sunday and appointed a new editor, and the Information Affairs Authority announced the paper could resume publication.
The state television station, which has in the past few weeks given air time to personal attacks against Jamri and opposition figures, Saturday night aired a program claiming that the newspaper had not only printed lies about the recent unrest, but had published news and photos from other newspapers, changing names to make the articles relevant to Bahrain.
After the program aired, the state news agency released a document detailing the charges, with photos and links as evidence. The report shows photos and text of other newspaper stories, and shows examples of the same information in Al Wasat used in the context of news stories about Bahrain. It says the paper took articles about events in Morocco and the Palestinian territories and altered them to publish as stories about Bahrain.
“The report … leaves no doubt that Al Wasat has purposefully published made-up news and photos during that period, which constitutes a crime punishable by both the kingdom's Penal Code and the Press and Publications Law,” said Bahrain News Agency.
The newspaper’s website was blocked Saturday night. Officials did not respond to an interview request Sunday.
Jamri says he was not notified beforehand of the accusations or that the newspaper would be suspended. He said the newspaper’s staff has been operating under enormous pressure in the last month. The paper itself has steadily gotten smaller as advertisers withdrew. Its printing press was attacked last month, and armed civilians surrounded the building.
“We've been under continous threat and our operations have been under threat,” says Jamri. “It culminated in this orchestrated campaign to basically bring down Al Wasat and shut it down so that an independent source of news cannot function in Bahrain.”
Bahrain imposed emergency law last month, and troops from Saudi Arabia and other neighboring Gulf nations were called in to help quell the uprising. The government has announced a gag order on coverage of investigations related to the emergency law, and multiple bloggers and online activists have been arrested. The opposition says more than 300 people have been arrested, while dozens are missing and 25 have been killed.