More Than 200 Journalists, Observers, Aid Workers Kept Out Since February 2011
[Manama] Bahrain’s government stands accused of serious and ongoing human rights violations, and has made many commitments to reform. However, the Government is keeping out journalists, members of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), researchers, politicians, activists, and other outside observers -- precisely the people who can report on the progress of reforms, or lack thereof. This is according to a new project called Access Denied <http://bahrainwatch.
The Access Denied project contains an interactive timeline  and database  of individuals kept out, an online form  to document new such cases, and a report  that details the project’s findings in full.
While Bahrain’s government claims to have an “open-door policy,” it has kept out more than 200 individuals in 221 instances since February 14, 2011, with some individuals kept out in more than one instance. This total, based on information in the public domain, includes foreign journalists from at least 22 media organizations, members of at least 17 NGOs, as well as politicians, trade unionists, aid workers, and activists. In November 2011, the Government assured  NGOs that they would always be allowed to visit Bahrain, and in January 2012, claimed  that it was working to provide greater access to journalists. However, the Government kept out NGOs and journalists significantly more often in 2012 than 2011: in 2012 the Government kept out a journalist in 29 instances, and an NGO member in 32; the numbers for 2011 were 12 and 5 respectively.
Some particularly worrying cases include:
- The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez intended to visit Bahrain in March 2012, but authorities requested  that he postpone the trip to July. The visit is yet to take place. Meanwhile, reports  suggest that detainees are still being tortured.
- In March 2012, Médecins Sans Frontières was forced  to cease providing medical services and end its presence in Bahrain after the Government refused entry to two staff members, leaving MSF without any personnel in the country. Injured protesters who seek medical attention in hospitals have  been subject to arrest, torture, and imprisonment since February 2011.
At the UN Human Rights Council in September 2012, Bahrain agreed  to “[allow] foreign media to enter the country and report freely” (UPR  115.148). The Government also promised to “lift all restrictions on movements of foreign journalists and international organizations defending human rights” (UPR  115.156). However, it shortly thereafter refused entry to 23 observers from several trade unions, and a member of FIDH. The latest incidents occurred on December 17 when a New York Times journalist was refused  entry, and a Member of the European Parliament was denied  a visa.
Methods of keeping people out include: denial of visa, refusal at a port of entry, changing regulations to prohibit planned visits, deportation, and blacklists. Some who gain access to Bahrain are harassed  by security forces, have their movements  restricted, or are only allowed to attend Government events. For journalists, even possession of a valid media visa  is not a guarantee of entry: on 23 November 2012, a German reporter was turned back at the airport after an immigration officer found a human rights report in his luggage.
Denying access to foreign observers puts a greater burden on local organizations that are already stretched thin by Government harassment, reduces impartial coverage of the situation in Bahrain, and limits independent scrutiny of the Government’s supposed reforms.
On 7 December 2012, the Government again claimed an open door policy: Sameera Rajab, the Minister of State for Information Affairs, invited  “objective and fair-minded rights watchdogs and media to come to Bahrain and assess the reality”. Such evaluation is precisely what is warranted, however the findings of Access Denied demonstrate that despite repeated invitations and promises to the contrary, the Government’s policy is one of avoiding scrutiny through keeping out observers. “The Bahrain Government has tried to hide its violations of human rights from the world since the start of the popular uprising in February 2011,“ said Bahrain Watch member John Horne. “If the Government really is committed to reform, it must stop using access denial as a tool of repression and start upholding its public commitments to permit outside witnesses.”
Bahrain Watch is a monitoring and advocacy group that seeks to promote effective, accountable, and transparent governance in Bahrain through research and evidence-based activism. About Bahrain Watch: http://bahrainwatch.