King Hamad of Bahrain has accused foreign media of exaggerating unrest and inciting violence in the Gulf Arab state after it hosted a Formula One race last month that turned into a public relations headache.
“It is quite clear that Bahrain has been targeted by purposeful, willful campaigns in some foreign media that sought to distort true facts, instigate violence, sabotage, hatred and hostility among citizens in our united nation,” the king said in a speech carried by the state news agency BNA marking the International Day for Freedom of the Press on Wednesday.
He gave no details on which media he was referring to, but said Bahrain would assure freedom of expression.
Bahraini authorities drew criticism from media freedom groups when they stopped some journalists entering the country ahead of the April 20-22 Grand Prix race. Critics said Manama staged the race as an improper show of normality in the country.
“There should be no tampering with the right of Bahraini citizens to express their opinions, nor any ceiling to freedom and creativity, except professionalism, national and ethical responsibilities and observance of the people’s unity and national interest…,” the monarch said.
Authorities in Bahrain have been struggling to crush the uprising for democratic reforms with martial law and bringing in Saudi troops. But more than a year later, unrest has not gone away.
Police fired tear gas and stun grenades to stop dozens who tried to protest in Manama on Tuesday. Activists reported tear gas and birdshot fired in Jidhafs on the edge of the capital on Wednesday in a rally for the release of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja.
Opposition parties hold weekly rallies and riot police clash almost nightly with protesters in villages of the Shia Muslim
majority demanding reforms that would reduce the extensive powers of the ruling Sunni Muslim Al Khalifa family.
The Sunni monarchy says it has started reforms in the police, judicial and media after a report by rights investigators criticising last year’s crackdown on dissidents and referring to widespread use of torture.
But it has given no ground on the central opposition demand – full powers for parliament to legislate and form governments.
Columnists in Bahraini daily papers – all but one are pro-government – have denounced the main Shia opposition party Wefaq as “the Bahraini Hezbollah”, in reference to the Iranian-backed Shia movement.
Many Bahrain activists follow online sites based abroad, such as Bahrain Mirror. State television does not cover opposition rallies or feature opposition leaders as guests.
A new minister of state for information, Samira Rajab, appointed last month, has been a prominent defender of government policies in Arab media.
A former supporter of the Iraqi Baath party of late dictator Saddam Hussein, Rajab regularly denounces Wefaq as a believer in Iran’s system of clerical government. Rajab says the opposition have declined offers to appear on state television.
Ali al-Deiry, a well-known Bahraini journalist who fled abroad during the crackdown, ridiculed King Hamad’s remarks.
“The gap is widening day after day between what the king says and the reality on the ground. The facts blatantly contradict what he says,” he told the Reuters news agency from a location outside Bahrain that he did not want revealed.
“There is no reform in the media at all, and it was a surprise for them that foreign media (during Formula One) did not wait for approval from them for what it said,” al-Deiry said.