Access Denied: How Bahrain shuts out the world
“The focuses of greatest concern are those countries which do not invite me, or which do invite me and then cancel, like Bahrain.” Juan Mendez, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture
"This is the hallmark of a repressive regime -- not allowing journalists into the country. The government is only fueling suspicions that they don’t want the rest of the world to see what’s going to happen.” Brian Dooley, Human Rights First
Access Denied is a Bahrain Watch project that documents the Bahraini government’s policy of denying access to independent foreign journalists, non-governmental organization (NGO) members, politicians, trade unionists, aid workers, and activists. Given the important role that these individuals play in advancing the rule of law and protecting civil society and its freedoms, Bahrain Watch is closely monitoring this issue. Alongside this report, Bahrain Watch has published a detailed timeline of events and a database of cases.
Summary: Five Key Findings
According to information in the public domain, there were at least 221 instances since February 14, 2011 where a foreign journalist, NGO member, politician, trade unionist, aid worker, or activist was denied access to Bahrain, alone or as part of a group. This total includes representatives from at least 17 NGOs and 22 media organizations. Some individuals have been denied access in multiple instances. Access denials to Bahrain increased from 2011 to 2012: of the 221 cases of access denial, 74 were in 2011, and 147 were in 2012.
Ongoing access denial is in contrast to public statements and pledges by the Government. The Government has made numerous public statements touting an “open-door policy” towards journalists, NGOs, and others. The Government also accepted two recommendations at the United Nations Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review requiring it to lift restrictions on foreign journalists and international organizations concerned with defending human rights. However, the Government's policy of access denial continues as of the date of publication of this report.
Methods of access denial include: denial of visa, refusal at a port of entry, changing regulations to prohibit planned visits, deportation, and blacklists.
Some individuals who gain access to Bahrain are harassed by security forces, have their movements restricted, or are only granted access to attend Government events.
The Government’s policy of restricting access to foreign observers puts a greater burden on local organizations that are already stretched thin by Government harassment, and reduces impartial coverage of the situation in Bahrain. Bahrain Watch is aware of cases in which concerns over having a visa revoked at the last minute, or being denied entry at the border, have resulted in prospective trips being abandoned. Thus, the true extent of the policy’s effect in reducing impartial coverage is not borne out by the numbers alone. The lack of impartial coverage may cause policymakers to consult biased or outdated information about Bahrain, leading them to suboptimal policy decisions.
Finding: Access Denials
See the database for full details. We highlight several illustrative cases below:
Access Denied: UN Special Rapporteur on torture
Shortly before UN Special Rapporteur on Torture (SRT) Juan Mendez was due to visit Bahrain in March 2012, Bahraini authorities instructed the SRT to postpone his visit until July. As of the date of publication of this report, the visit is yet to take place. Asked in June 2012 about the countries which worry him most, Mr Mendez said: “The focuses of greatest concern are those countries which do not invite me, or which do invite me and then cancel, like Bahrain.” Three other UN Special Rapporteurs have also made official requests to visit Bahrain in 2011 and 2012, but had received no response from the government as of September 2012.
Meanwhile, allegations of torture continue. Most recently, a detainee’s family visiting him in prison reported that he was missing four fingernails, and his face was swollen and his jaw broken from beatings. The detainee, who was arrested in November 2012, also complained that he had suffered electric shocks on his stomach, waist, and genitals while in custody.
Access Denied: Medical aid
Two cases of access restrictions relate to the Bahrain government’s crackdown on the health sector which involved the medical takeover of the main public hospital. Injured protesters who seek medical attention, and the doctors that treat them, have been subjected to arrest, torture, and imprisonment since February 2011. This has been documented by Physicians for Human Rights, itself subject to access restrictions throughout 2012.
In March 2011, following the intervention of Saudi-led troops and reports of casualties, the Bahraini authorities refused entry to a medical convoy from Kuwait. The convoy included 53 health workers, with 21 ambulances and other equipment, delivering medical aid.
One year later in March 2012, the NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was forced to end its presence in Bahrain after two staff members were refused entry, leaving it without any staff in the country. MSF had previously been harassed by authorities: police targeted its offices in a July 2011 armed raid, during which a staff member was arrested. MSF was working to provide medical treatment to protesters afraid to go to the public hospital.
Access Denied: Journalists
On 23 November 2011, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) issued its report, which found the Government responsible for serious abuses including torture and extrajudicial killings, and contained a number of recommendations on police, judicial, and other reform that the Government pledged to implement. On 23 November 2012, the one-year anniversary of the report, a journalist from German newspaper F.A.Z. was refused entry at the airport. The journalist had acquired a visa through the proper channels over a fortnight in advance of his trip. Upon arrival, he was initially given a stamp in his passport. However, he was stopped by a customs official who asked what he was doing in Bahrain. When he responded that he was a journalist, the official searched his bag and found a copy of an Amnesty International report along with a book on the Gulf States. The official took the journalist to the airport’s immigration office. A guard there told him that he should “stay home and write about Germany, with its many homeless people”. After waiting for five hours, the journalist was informed that his visa was invalid. An official wrote “cancelled” over the entry stamp in his passport.
A November 2012 report by the Project on Middle East Democracy concluded that Bahrain had fully implemented only three of the 26 recommendations in the BICI report. The Government has claimed that 18 of the recommendations were implemented.
In addition to the individuals whose access problems are documented in our database, Bahrain Watch is aware of others who have reason to believe that they are on an official blacklist, likely as a consequence of their perceived opposition to the government. These people include researchers, journalists, activists, and a member of the British House of Lords. Since information about these cases is not in the public domain, we have not included them in our database, or in any calculations presented by this report.
Finding: Bahrain’s “Open-Door Policy”
On 24 November, 2011, the day after the publication of the BICI report, Bahrain’s Minister of Human Rights and Social Development Fatima AlBalooshi assured international organizations that they would always be welcome in the country. Similarly, in January 2012, a government spokesperson said: “Bahrain continues to work closely with the media and to provide them with greater accessibility to cover events in country.”
Despite these pledges, January of 2012 saw the start of a new wave of access restrictions, beginning with Government’s refusal of entry to Richard Sollom from Physicians for Human Rights. The Ministry of Social Development responded with a statement saying that Bahrain’s “open-door policy remains in place”. Shortly after, the NGOs Freedom House and Human Rights First were instructed to delay their planned visits. This prompted eleven members of the US Congress to write a letter to King Hamad in February urging him “to reconsider the recent travel bans on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) seeking to enter Bahrain”.
Following the letter, the Commander-in-Chief of the Bahrain Defence Force told a Bahraini newspaper in February that 22 unnamed NGOs were plotting against Bahrain:
"Nineteen of them are based in the US and three in a Gulf country … In their conspiracy against the regime in Bahrain, they provided large funds and mobilised people from intelligence services, the military, the media, the press, media agencies and satellite channels. They all conspired against Bahrain at a time when we were regretfully unaware of what was happening."
That same month, the Minister of Interior banned 54 suspected activists or journalists from entering Bahrain, stating that some of them belonged to an organisation that “trains people to resist their regimes.” Also in February, 12 human rights activists who had come to Bahrain to witness daily life were deported. Other activists were refused entry at the airport.
Most recently, at the UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on 19 September 2012, the Bahraini government accepted recommendations to “[allow] foreign media to enter the country and report freely” (UPR 115.148) and “lift all restrictions on movements of foreign journalists and international organizations defending human rights.” (UPR 115.156)
The week after the Government accepted these recommendations, 23 international observers from several trade unions were refused entry to Bahrain. On 16 October 2012, a representative from the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) was turned away at the airport. She was travelling to Bahrain to observe Bahrain Center for Human Rights President Nabeel Rajab’s appeal hearing concerning his then three year sentence on charges related to organising and participating in protests. Three days later, Bahrain’s Minister of Human Rights Affairs, Dr Salah Ali Abdulrahman offered fresh assurances. According to Bahrain’s official news agency, he “said that the doors of the kingdom were open for all … human rights organizations.” However, two weeks later, on 4 November 2012, American NGO Physicians for Human Rights was denied permission for a planned visit and told to reschedule its trip for 2013.
Finding: How Bahrain's Government Restricts Access
The following are the main ways that the Government denies access to Bahrain:
Denying a visa prior to travel: Bahrain Watch is aware of 58 instances of an individual being denied a visa. Al Jazeera reports that when it applied for media visas to report from Bahrain for the week surrounding the February 14 anniversary, it received a letter stating: "Due to the high volume of applications we will not be able to grant your visa for the specified dates."
Most visas for EU and US passport holders were traditionally given upon arrival at the airport. However, authorities have increasingly required that journalists and NGOs obtain a visa prior to their visit. In August 2012, Tom Malinowski from Human Rights Watch told a US Congressional hearing on Bahrain that “the Bahraini government has imposed a de-facto visa ban on certain Americans.” He added that the government denies visas “when it disagrees with what [people] say or write.” As recently as December 2012, a Member of the European Parliament was denied a visa, preventing her from joining her colleagues in a delegation to Bahrain.
However, even with the possession of a valid visa, on occasion, denial of entry at the airport has still occurred.
Refusing entry: Bahrain Watch is aware of 118 instances of an individual being refused access at the airport, or another port of entry. Many have been turned away at the airport, particularly if they are suspected of being journalists, members of an NGO, or human rights activists. On 18 February 2011, a Reuters journalist reported seeing 16 foreign journalists detained at the airport. One BBC producer was kept waiting for 15-hours. Interviewed in June 2011, McClatchy journalist Roy Gutman said: "Bahraini authorities wouldn't let me in.” He noted, “They don't let reporters in except perhaps one a week from the international media.” One journalist who was refused entry in May was told by immigration officials that she was “considered a security problem.”
In April 2012, a British politician and writer was refused entry after authorities presented him with copies of tweets that he had written which were critical of Bahrain's government. Bahrain Watch has spoken with several people who have been stopped at the airport. They also report that they had their names searched on the internet, or their previous passport stamps scrutinized.
Changing regulations: The Government has forced NGOs to cancel planned visits by changing regulations at the last minute. Amnesty International had to cancel a fact-finding mission to Bahrain, after it was informed at the last minute of a new regulation that limited all NGO visits to 5 days and prohibited any visit on a weekend -- the preferred time for large-scale protests. In April 2012, a delegation of several NGOs had to abandon a monitoring visit after authorities issued a new regulation stating that only one organization per week was allowed into the country. This was in spite of the fact that entry visas for the delegation had previously been approved.
Deportation: Bahrain Watch is aware of 22 instances of an individual being deported from Bahrain. In mid-2011 for example, a Reuters journalist who had worked in Bahrain since 2008 was summoned by authorities one night and told to leave. Bahrain Watch is also aware of at least 2 other journalists and 14 human rights activists deported in 2012. Journalists and human rights activists who have entered Bahrain on a tourist visa have been subject to arrest and immediate deportation. Bahrain Watch is also aware of instances where expatriates were instructed to leave the country as a consequence of expressing opinions critical of the government, such as English teacher and amateur photojournalist Tony Mitchell.
Instructing delays: Bahrain Watch is aware of at least three cases where an individual or organization received instructions from the Government to delay a planned visit to a time more convenient for the Government. For example, Bahrain’s Ministry of Human Rights sent a letter to Brian Dooley of Human Rights First, telling him to delay his planned January 2012 visit until March. Freedom House was similarly instructed. The Government was due to report on its implementation of BICI recommendations at the end of February. In November 2012, Physicians for Human Rights were told to delay a planned visit to 2013.
Blacklisting: Some individuals have reason to believe that they have been placed on a Government blacklist. For example, an Al-Jazeera English journalist who had been working undercover was told by authorities before leaving Bahrain that she would be placed on such a blacklist. Other examples include journalists Amber Lyon and Nick Kristof. On 17 December 2012, Kristof tweeted: “Bahrain officials acknowledge that US citizens can transit for 72 hours without a visa, but they say I'm on a blacklist.” Others that Bahrain Watch has spoken to in confidence hold similar concerns. Due to the time and expense required to travel to Bahrain, even an unconfirmed belief that one is on a blacklist can deter them from attempting to enter the country.
Finding: Other Types of Restrictions
Based in part on interviews and interactions with several reporters who have covered Bahrain, Bahrain Watch concludes that the Government hinders the work of individuals on the ground in the following ways:
Security harassment: Journalists have been subject to detention and physical assault whilst in Bahrain. This includes reporters from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, ABC, The National, France 24 and Press TV. A CBS journalist described how security forces treated her in March 2011: “The riot police showed no mercy, they did not stop to ask us who we were. The just saw a camera and they started firing.” These problems have persisted throughout 2012. During the week of the Formula One race in Bahrain in April 2012, The Sunday Telegraph’s Chief Foreign Correspondent managed to enter the country, but was detained at a checkpoint and taken to a police station where he was held for several hours. On the day of the main race, a three-person crew from Channel 4 News were arrested from their car, following a pursuit by security forces. The crew was held for six hours and then deported. Dr Ala’a Shehabi, a British citizen and a founding member of Bahrain Watch, was arrested along with the crew. Their Bahraini driver was beaten by police before also being arrested. As recently as October 2012, the Chief Correspondent for Sky News reported that he was “arrested three times in two days” whilst in Bahrain.
Monitoring: Several journalists have felt they have were being monitored or had been followed during their journey and could be putting their sources at risk. An Al Jazeera English journalist, who had been working undercover, said that “very shortly after” she interviewed several activists, “a huge mob of police came looking for me ... they trace everybody through mobile phones.”
Restrictions on freedom of movement: When in the country, journalists are required to check in with the Information Affairs Authority (IAA). If a journalist is found to be reporting on protests, he or she may be detained in order to remove them from the scene. Most recently, an AlJazeera journalist who was in the country was not given permission to cover the GCC summit on December 25 having applied weeks earlier.
Access given openly to cover government-sponsored events: Journalists, as well as NGOs, can be offered access when it is convenient for authorities. For example, journalists denied entry on other occasions were invited to Bahrain to cover the launch of the BICI report in November 2011, or allowed to attend the Manama Dialogue in December 2012. Conversely, journalists who wanted to cover the February 14 anniversary were told to reapply after 22 February, ensuring they would miss reporting on a key protest event.
Finding: Access Denial Has Serious Implications
At the start of Bahrain’s uprising in February 2011, the Government allowed many foreign journalists and representatives of NGOs to enter the country. These individuals served as critical independent witnesses of events in Bahrain: they documented many of the human rights violations that occurred during the suppression of protests and brought them to international attention. The subsequent work of these journalists and NGOs has been substantially impeded by Bahrain’s policy of access denial. Bahrain Watch believes that the government's policy has several negative consequences; specifically:
Available information about Bahrain may be limited in quantity. For example, first-hand coverage of events by the mainstream media is severely reduced, as no mainstream press or TV channel is able to cover Bahrain from the ground on a regular basis. Even those who have not been explicitly denied access have been deterred from visiting Bahrain. One anonymous journalist told Bahrain Watch: “I go places I know I'll get in, and I know that getting into Bahrain is close to impossible these days, especially for people with history there ... I can’t really get on a flight there without clearing it with work first and that won't be easy since we're not really sending people because we know they won’t get in.” Another journalist who was previously denied entry said: “I didn't tried to go back again, especially because one of the officials said to me in a very clear way I'm not welcome in Bahrain. In any case, due the amount of regional uprisings, I didn't try again.”
Available information may show a coverage bias in favor of the Government. The Bahrain government is able to manipulate and negotiate access to the country on its own terms, particularly concerning the timing of visits. The general pattern detected from the timeline, has been that access is restricted around dates marking protest activity, such as the one-year anniversary of the February 14 uprising, whilst access is granted on dates when a government-sponsored event takes place, such as the Bahrain International Air Show, or the Manama Dialogue.
Available information may show a statement bias in favor of the Government. Bahrain Watch is aware of at least two cases where a journalist and NGO member were offered access to the country on the condition that they publish an article supportive of the government before the visit. Critical reporting of Bahrain's government can result in a denial of subsequent access to the country and officials One anonymous journalist told Bahrain Watch, “I personally tried to send in couple of reporters from the news website I run but it was impossible. [The] Bahrain embassy in Egypt denied [a] visa to one and asked the other to publish an article supporting the regime as a precondition to give her visa! We refused of course.” This strategy works in concert with other methods of “suppressing the narrative” employed by the Bahrain authorities, particularly the use of public relations firms, to try and ensure that the government’s version of events reaches the widest international audience. Bahrain Watch has learned that several journalists have exercised restraint in their critical coverage, felt pressure to do so, or remained silent on issues, in order to gain access.
Local organizations, already spread thin due to Government harassment, shoulder a greater burden in reporting and documentation. Because of the lack of foreign observers in Bahrain, a handful of local activists take tremendous risks in being the sole reporters of daily events and human rights violations. Many leading human rights defenders are currently behind bars, serving lengthy sentences, whilst others continually face the threat of arrest, detention and imprisonment for their actions in documenting abuses. Local journalists have faced even worse, including torture. Under such circumstances, there is an increasing need for outside observers to witness and document the current situation in Bahrain.
On 7 December 2012, official government spokesperson Sameera Rajab invited “objective and fair-minded rights watchdogs and media to come to Bahrain and assess the reality.” Such scrutiny is precisely what is warranted, but only on the assumption that full and unrestricted access is given.
For the Government of Bahrain to lift access restrictions and allow the free movement of foreign journalists and NGO members, as it agreed to during the UN Human Rights Council UPR.
In particular, Médecins Sans Frontières should be allowed to operate in the country to offer medical neutrality where there are credible reports of protesters being arrested at hospitals. Furthermore, all the UN Special Rapporteurs who have sought to visit Bahrain should be given prompt dates, with guarantees of complete access as required.
For NGOs, journalists and other outside observers to continue to attempt to enter Bahrain by continually re-applying for visas and to pressure their governments to facilitate their entry.