Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media
The constitution provides for freedom of speech and for members of the press and other media, “provided that the fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine are not infringed, the unity of the people is not prejudiced, and discord and sectarianism are not aroused.” This constitutional provision, however, does not extend protection to social media. The government limited freedom of expression and press freedom through prosecutions of individuals under libel, slander, and national security laws that targeted both professional and citizen journalists.
Freedom of Expression: The law forbids any speech that infringes on public order or morals. Speech was curtailed in both traditional media and social media. While individuals openly expressed critical opinions regarding domestic political and social issues in private settings, those who expressed such opinions publicly often faced repercussions. During the year the government took steps against what it considered acts of civil disobedience, which included critical speech. The penal code allows penalties of no less than one year and no more than seven years of imprisonment, plus a fine, for anyone who “offends the monarch of the Kingdom of Bahrain, the flag, or the national emblem.”
On January 21, authorities released Shia preacher Sheikh Abdul Mohsin Mulla Atiyya al-Jamri after a one-year prison sentence. Al-Jamri was convicted of delivering a sermon “disdaining a figure that is revered by a religious group,” according to the PPO.
On July 8, retired military officer and social media activist Mohamed al-Zayani was sentenced to a two-year noncustodial sentence after posting a video criticizing the PPO and the judiciary. Al-Zayani was an outspoken critic on sensitive topics, such as political prisoners and corruption.
International and local NGOs reported that police summoned three clerics in August during the days leading up to, and following, the Ashura religious rites. Authorities reportedly summoned and interrogated them for the content of their sermons, and specifically for “inciting sectarian hatred.” Police held two of them overnight; the third cleric remained in police custody as of year’s end.
Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: The government did not own any print media, but the Ministry of Information Affairs and other government entities exercised considerable control over privately owned domestic print media.
The government owned and operated all domestic radio and television stations. Audiences generally received radio and television broadcasts in Arabic and English from stations based outside the country, including by satellite. The Ministry of Information Affairs reviewed all books and publications prior to issuing printing licenses. The Ministry of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments also reviewed those books that discussed religion.
Violence and Harassment: According to local journalists and human rights groups, authorities sometimes harassed, arrested, or threatened journalists, photographers, and “citizen journalists” active on social media due to their reporting. Authorities claimed, however, that some individuals who identified themselves as journalists and photographers were associated with violent opposition groups and produced propaganda and recruiting videos for these groups. International media representatives reported difficulty in obtaining visas to work as journalists.
In June authorities detained a Sunni former member of parliament, Osama al-Tamimi, who had been critical on social media and in parliament of the ruling family and the treatment of prisoners. He was in the hospital for medical treatment at the time of his arrest. On June 27, he posted a message from prison, accusing authorities of penalizing his family by laying off his siblings from their government jobs, expelling his children from school, conducting multiple raids on his house, and vandalizing his property. Al-Tamimi also accused authorities of seizing his assets, freezing his local bank accounts, and injecting him with toxic substances. He remained in prison without charges at year’s end.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government censorship occurred. Ministry of Information Affairs personnel actively monitored and blocked stories on matters deemed sensitive, especially those related to sectarianism, national security, or criticism of the royal family, the Saudi royal family, or the judiciary. Journalists widely practiced self-censorship. Some members of media reported government officials contacted editors directly and told them to stop publishing articles on certain subjects.
The press and publications law prohibits anti-Islamic content in media and mandates imprisonment for “exposing the state’s official religion to offense and criticism.” The law states, “Any publication that prejudices the ruling system of the country and its official religion may be banned from publication by a ministerial order.” In November, after a movie studio refused to edit out certain scenes, the Ministry of Information banned the screening of a film due to its portrayal of a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or intersex (LGBTQI+) character and a same-sex relationship.
Libel/Slander Laws: The government enforced libel and national security-related laws restricting freedom of the press. The penal code prohibits libel, slander, and “divulging secrets,” and it stipulates a punishment of imprisonment of no more than two years or a fine. Application of the slander law was selective.
National Security: National security laws provide for substantial fines and prison sentences of at least six months for criticizing the king or inciting actions that undermine state security, as well as fines for 14 related offenses. Punishable activities include publicizing statements issued by a foreign state or organization without prior government approval, publishing reports that adversely affect the value of the dinar (BHD), the local currency, saying anything offensive against a head of state that maintains diplomatic relations with the country, and publishing offensive remarks concerning accredited representatives of foreign countries.
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government did not always respect these rights.
Foreign Travel: The law provides that the government may reject for “reasonable cause” applications to obtain or renew passports, but the applicant has the right to appeal such decisions before the High Civil Court. Individuals, including citizens of other countries, reported authorities blocked them from leaving over unpaid debts or other fiduciary obligations to private individuals or lending institutions, as well as for open court cases. The government maintained an online website enabling individuals to check their status before travel, although some persons claimed the website’s information was unreliable. Authorities relied on determinations of “national security” when adjudicating passport applications. The government sometimes prevented civil society activists and others who publicly criticized the government from leaving the country, including for travel to Geneva and other western capitals that host UN agencies. Reports alleged that four minor children were denied issuance of passports in retaliation for their exiled family members’ activities.
Exile: There were no reports the government prohibited the return of individuals it considered citizens. The government, however, prohibited the return of those whose citizenship it had formally revoked, or those it no longer considered citizens.
Citizenship: The government may revoke citizenship in both criminal and political cases, including for natural-born citizens. Authorities maintained the revocation of citizenship of some opposition political and religious figures. The government did not consider whether individuals may become stateless by these actions. At times it threatened to halt payments of pensions or remove families from government-assisted housing if the head of household lost his citizenship. Some family members, especially women and adult and minor children, reported difficulties renewing or obtaining their own passports, residence cards, and birth certificates. The government did not report how many persons had their citizenship revoked during the year; international human rights NGOs placed the total number at more than 900 since 2012, with the government reinstating more than 55 percent of revoked citizenships as of 2019.
The government generally cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, or asylum seekers, as well as other persons of concern.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. The government at times provided protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Such protection was mostly limited to those who were able to obtain and maintain employment in the country. Such individuals generally had access to health care and education services while employed but were at risk of deportation if they became unemployed or their country of origin revoked their passports. UNHCR reported that as of October, there were 255 refugees and 123 asylum-seekers registered with the agency.
Individuals generally derive citizenship from the father, but the king may also confer or revoke citizenship. The government considers only the father’s citizenship; it does not generally grant citizenship to children born to citizen mothers and foreign fathers, even if they were born within the country (see section 6, Children). Similarly, the government does not provide a path to citizenship for foreign men married to citizen women, while allowing foreign women married to citizen men to become citizens. Human rights organizations reported these laws resulted in stateless children, particularly when the foreign father was unable or unwilling to secure citizenship for the child from the father’s country of nationality, or when the father was stateless, deceased, or unknown. The number of stateless persons residing in the country was unknown. Stateless persons had limited access to social services, education, and employment.
NGOs confirmed multiple cases of authorities refusing applications for birth certificates and passports for children whose fathers were in prison because the fathers were not able to submit the applications in person or if their father’s citizenship had been revoked (see section 6, Children).
The government charged individuals whose citizenship it revoked with violating immigration law if they remained in the country.