There is nothing more moving than to encounter exiled journalists who have run for their lives, left their loved ones behind and re-emerged in a foreign country like a rabbit caught in headlights, at the mercy of a ruthless immigration bureaucracy. This is what is happening to half a dozen Bahraini journalists who have fled to the UK and who will remain nameless. I met them today in London to hear about the situation of colleagues they left behind and their struggle to survive and settle.
Until March 15th all these journalists had solid jobs and a steady future. Following the uprising that ignited their country, scores of journalists, bloggers and photographers have been targeted by the country’s security forces. Two of them, publisher Kareem Fakhrawi and blogger Zakariya Al-Asheeri, died while in custody. Many others were arrested, some tortured and over 95 so far sacked from their jobs. Several photographers as well as two journalists remain in custody – Abbas al-Marshed and Abdulla Alaawi – charged with a weird accusation from the Punishment Laws that can indict citizens, including journalists, for “inciting the public to disdain government or disfavouring it”. The only case that made headlines worldwide was that of France 24 reporter Nazeeha Saeed who was brutally beaten and assaulted during her interrogation.
The journalists I met today were profoundly traumatised by their ordeal and, at the same time, concerned about their families left behind and anxious about their future. At the moment they are focussing on obtaining political asylum – not a mean feat in today’s Britain. They found themselves in a strange environment, dispersed throughout the country and having to fend for themselves. Thankfully the NUJ in the UK is helping them strengthen their legal cases, giving them advice and connecting them with journalists in the localities they now live in.
The reaction from the Bahraini authorities was to say that these claims are “pure fiction” and that nobody was being targeted. Our member union, the Bahraini Journalists’ Association, shamefully backed their government’s claim and even supported employers when they justified the sackings of journalists “because they did not show up for work for more than 10 consecutive days and they only followed the law of the land.” In their desperate attempts to deflect criticism, the authorities are even suing Robert Fisk of the London daily Independent, disputing his reports of events.
Despite protests by its member union in Bahrain, the IFJ has given full support to the journalists under the cosh. Its leadership went further and decided not to renew the arrangement with the Association to host the federation’s Ethical Initiative in the region. It also agreed to switch a major event to train trainers on safety from Bahrain to Rabat. All is not lost with the Association and we should continue our attempts to try and convince it to stand by all its journalists. However this work remains severely stymied by the double standard of Western governments who applaud the revolution in Egypt and Tunisia while turning a blind eye to the violent repression in Bahrain. Many press freedom foundations follow blindly their government’s line and their praise for the Arab Spring will sound more and more hollow if they don’t line up behind these brave Bahraini journalists.