Yesterday’s letter from the Board of Directors to the staff of Bahrain’s only independent newspaper Al Wasat was a heavy blow for the country, and for journalism in the Middle East. It confirmed that the board had “decided to terminate the employment contracts with the employees, due to the cessation of business activities of Al-Wasat newspaper, in accordance with the decision of the Ministry of Information Affairs issued on 4 June 2017, a decision that has caused losses to the Company.”
The 4 June closure ordered by the government, which now attacks any public criticism, was the third time the newspaper had been ordered to stop publishing since widespread pro-democracy protests broke out in 2011, and was based on the pretext that the paper had published content "offensive to a sisterly Arab state," after it covered protests in Morocco.
The decision forced the board to end 15 years of strong, independent reporting. Although it had to operate within tight media restrictions, Al Wasat carved a reputation for solid journalism in dangerous conditions. Its editor Mansoor Al Jamri is recognized across the region and beyond for the quality of his work, and was awarded the Committee to Protect Journalists International Press Freedom Award in 2011 and the Peace Through Media Award the following year.
Al Jamri was prosecuted in 2011, and one of the paper’s founders, Karim Fakhrawi, was tortured to death in custody that year. Shutting down Al Wasat is a major move, and leaves Bahrain’s national media field filled by the regime’s mouthpiece agencies and newspapers which offer sycophantic coverage of the ruling elite and are highly unlikely to expose government corruption. Bahrain has also joined Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates in demanding the closure of Qatar-based Al Jazeera.
Entry to Bahrain for foreign reporters is severely restricted, and the government refuses to accredit journalists inside the country working for international agencies.
The regime can try to hide bad news and cover its ears from the truth but the country is sliding towards political and economic chaos. The kingdom’s chronic housing shortage is now reported to stand at 75,000 units, says property analysts CBRE, where “the majority of the shortage is in the low-to-middle income segment catering to the needs of Bahraini families.” At the end of May international financial ratings agency Moody’s gave Bahrain’s banking sector a negative outlook, and on June 12 Fitch Ratings revised Bahrain's Outlook to Negative from Stable, citing “domestic political tensions.”
Bahrain’s ruling family is facing an economic crisis but its real problem is one of moral bankruptcy.
It has no plan to navigate its way out of its long-term political problems beyond silencing any views contrary to its own. Its notorious Natonal Security Agency has been brought back to enforce a regimen of intimidation and torture, with fresh reports of abuse in Muharraq’s police station. Bahrain’s government has jailed or exiled its most prominent human rights activists, shut down political opposition groups, and now closed the country’s only independent newspaper.
Shutting down Al Wasat is a short-term victory for government hardliners, but in the long term will be seen as a major mistake, immensely harmful to the future of Bahrain.