The Freedom Chat Transcripts: Bahraini Journalist Nazeeha Saeed
The Freedom Chat is a new video series by Sampsonia Way featuring interviews with journalists and other media workers facing censorship and repression in their home countries. In these Q&A’s, conducted via video chat, journalists talk with Sampsonia Way about press freedom, anti-free speech legislation, and exile.
In the Freedom Chat Transcripts, we share the entire interview with our subjects, including material not included in the video.
An island nation in the Arabian Gulf, Bahrain experienced an outpouring of political unrest and protest during the Arab Spring in 2011. Yet, unlike Egypt, Tunisia, and others, the Bahraini monarchy’s human rights abuses, as well as the falling level of press freedom, have not been widely reported by Middle Eastern or international news outlets. While the Bahraini government continues to react against the 2011 protests with strict censorship laws and state-controlled media, independent and civilian journalists work to provide objective reports at the risk of torture, imprisonment, and even death. In our latest Freedom Chat installment, we speak to one such journalist: 32 year-old Nazeeha Saeed, who in addition to working as an international correspondent, has challenged human rights abuses through the Bahraini legal system.
While covering Bahrain’s pro-democracy protests in 2011, Saeed was imprisoned and tortured in a local police station. After her release, she brought charges against her torturers and endured a two year trial only to find that the defendants would be acquitted of their crimes. Now, as the Bahraini correspondent for France 24 and Radio Monte Carlo Doualiya, she advocates for press freedom in the Middle East by continuing her work as an independent journalist, speaking out against human rights abuses, and using social media to report untold stories.
In this Freedom Chat, Sampsonia Way spoke to Saeed via Skype about the state of journalism and censorship in Bahrain and her struggle for justice.
What legal penalties exist for journalists in Bahrain?
Since Bahrain does not have specific laws governing journalism, journalists are tried under criminal law. This means they can face any kind of penalty: Fines, prison, and even death if they are accused of being a traitor.
Why do you think the situation in Bahrain has received so little media coverage?
The Arab press is less interested in Bahrain because there are bigger and bloodier scenes else-where in the Arab world: Iraq, Syria, Libya. In contrast, the Bahraini situation seems very peaceful, and both Arab and non-Arab international media ignore it.
A lot of Middle Eastern press is not independent and follows the political agenda of government leaders. We can call what is happening in Bahrain an “uprising,” but if the governments don’t support what’s happening, the media won’t cover it.
You are one of many Bahraini journalists who are active on Twitter. To what extent does the government censor social media?
The Ministry of Information has a special unit just to supervise social media that checks for criminal acts like insulting the king or any of the country’s icons.
Since 2011, using social media has become a call for all people, not just journalists. It’s a tool and window to write about things that the media doesn’t cover. If there were a protest here to-night, most media outlets wouldn’t be interested in it because protests are small and happen every day. Instead, social media is the place where people talk about these events and post pictures and videos.
You mention the crime of insulting the king. How has this been used against writers?
We have a new law which says that if you use any media tool, even social media, to insult the king, you can go to prison for one to seven years. In Bahrain, the royal family is a red line. If a corrupt minister is from the royal family, you can say that the ministry is corrupt, but not the minister himself.
In addition, the opposition‘s slogan is “Down with Hamid,” in reference to the Bahraini king. If you use this slogan at any time, you face the charge of insulting the king. Anyone who wants to overthrow the regime in favor of a republic or a constitutional monarchy risks this accusation.
Do censorship laws apply equally to professional journalists and civilian journalists?
Citizen journalists are more at risk because they don’t have a media outlet to defend them. Therefore, they are more frequently accused of insulting the king and trying to overthrow the regime.
How did the 2011 protests in Bahrain affect media censorship?
The uprising in Bahrain affected the media a lot. Even the media outlets which had improved from 2001 to 2011 went back to square one. They are once again biased towards the government and throw accusations at the opposition and the protesters.
We’ve lost neutrality in the local newspapers and media and news reports have become illogical. For example, there are reports that all of the protesters are backed by foreign countries.
In 2011 you were arrested and tortured. Can you tell me about the process of bringing your torturers to court?
I was one of hundreds of people who were tortured in that police station. It wasn’t just the mistake of one or two officers. At that time, torture was the Ministry of the Interior’s policy against anybody they thought opposed the government.
Bringing that case to court was unprecedented. Many international organizations supported me. However, after two years of going to court and facing my torturers again, there was no justice. In the end, they were acquitted.
Have other journalists pressed charges against their torturers?
No, they haven’t. I encouraged my colleagues to file a case against their torturers, but there were many difficulties. In my case, the media channel that I worked for supported me. My colleagues were working for local newspapers and TV, and nobody supported them.
They also don’t believe the system will help them because, in my case, the system didn’t grant justice. In addition, they didn’t know their torturers, since most of them were blindfolded. In my case, I was very aware of who they were.
To what extent do you consider yourself to be an activist as well as a journalist?
To be honest, I don’t consider myself an activist. I am a journalist who defends freedom of speech and press, who wants this country to have freedom of speech, media, and press. This will lead to democracy, freedom, justice, and other good things for Bahrain.