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Bahrain closes only independent paper over Qatar Crisis

Bahraini daily "Al-Wasat" closes under state pressure

The Bahraini daily "Al-Wasat" was the Gulf nation's only independent newspaper ... until it was shut down last June. We found out what the closure means for the journalists who used to work at the paper.

Just imagine it's a normal working day: you get up early, drive to the office and start your daily routine - but then, you suddenly get an e-mail telling you your entire company is being shut down and everyone will be fired. Hard to believe? Perhaps, but for the employees of Bahrain's only independent newspaper, that scenario became bitter reality on June 4 th this year, when the Bahraini authorities published a press release suspending the newspaper. The suspension entered into effect immediately, putting some 180 people out of work at the stroke of a pen.

According to the Ministry of Information, Al-Wasat's coverage "spread the division of society and affects the Kingdom of Bahrain and other countries". The newspaper was also accused of "harming national unity". For its employees, the closure came out of nowhere, with most of them reading about the decision in the local media. "We were surprised, because we didn't know the reason behind the suspension. However, it is not the first time that this has happened to Al-Wasat", one staff member said.

Not harassed for the first time

Al-Wasat was founded in 2002, and in its short history has had to cope with several suspensions, prohibitions and bans over its coverage. In January 2017, the Al-Wasat website was banned after reporting on the execution of three Bahrainis charged with "anti-terrorism". In 2015 and 2016, the newspaper's online and video section also suffered short-term suspensions because of their critical coverage. Most of the Al-Wasat staff therefore expected this latest suspension to last only a few weeks. But, against all expectations, the suspension is still in effect.

The reason for this harsh action by Bahraini authorities was a column Al-Wasat published on the day of its suspension that allegedly insulted another Arab country. Hours after the press release, Mansour al-Jamri, Al-Wasat's editor-in-chief, was informed that the suspension was related to a column about political protests in Morocco. "However neither the Moroccan government nor the embassy in Bahrain complained about the coverage," according to an employee at Al-Wasat.

The impact of the Qatar crisis

Many Bahrainis therefore believe the suspension of the newspaper may be related to the Qatar Crisis, which erupted just 12 hours after the suspension. Four days later, Bahrain's Ministry of Interior announced that any public support for Qatar or any public criticism of Bahrain's actions on social media would be considered "punishable" and would "lead to jail" sentences of up to five years as well as a fine.

With Al-Wasat suspended, that announcement assured that the Bahrain's media and public opinion maintained a critical view of Qatar and its role in the region. Additionally, it effectively prevented the Bahraini government from being criticized from within its own country. Recent information concerning phone contact between the Qatari government and Bahrain's opposition appear to support that assumption.

Meanwhile, there is little hope at the moment that Al-Wasat will re-open. "According to Bahraini law, a media institution that has been suspended can be only reopened within six months," says a former Al-Wasat employee. That deadline expired on December 4 th, shattering all hopes that the newspaper would get back to business. Its 180 former employees are now all looking for a job, which is no easy task. "The only job option now is working for the pro-government newspapers. And the difficulty is that it's not just them who don't want to hire us, it's also us who don't want to give up our belief in independent journalism," says a former Al-Wasat journalist. For financial reasons though, many independent journalists may now be forced to change sides.