x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Paper pays for criticising Iran

Manama suspends publishing rights for a day after the Iranian Embassy complains of a columnist's harsh comments about the Islamic republic.

Journalists at the Gulf Daily News, the English-language sister paper of Akhbar Al Khaleej, at work in Manama. Bahraini authorities suspended the latter's publishing rights for a day.
Journalists at the Gulf Daily News, the English-language sister paper of Akhbar Al Khaleej, at work in Manama. Bahraini authorities suspended the latter's publishing rights for a day.

MANAMA // A diplomatic row between Manama and Tehran seems to have been quelled for the time being after authorities moved quickly to shut down a local newspaper for a day after it printed a column harshly criticising the Iranian government and the structure of its regime. The repercussions from the article, however, seem to be far from over; the paper continues to stand its ground and Iran remains embroiled in confrontation with the West and the United Nations over what it has described as "interference" in its internal affairs following the disputed presidential elections 13 days ago.

Bahrain's ministry of culture and information on Sunday issued an administrative order suspending the publication of the daily Arabic newspaper Akhbar Al Khaleej, less than 24 hours after the paper published its highly critical column. The decision went into effect immediately after the authorities cited a violation of the 2002 press code and barred the paper from printing its Monday edition. Sunday's suspension order did not clearly state the exact violation the paper committed. Multiple sources, however, confirmed that the action was taken after Iranian Embassy officials complained to Bahrain's foreign ministry about the column in which the author accused the Iranian regime of being a "dictatorship".

Bahrain's foreign minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al Khalifa, met on Monday with the Iranian ambassador, Hussein Amir Abdul Lahyan, to stress Manama's rejection of foreign meddling in Iran's internal affairs. During the meeting he also affirmed the importance of respecting the norms of diplomatic agreements between states and the wisdom of the Iranian government in dealing with any internal matters, according to a Bahrain News Agency statement.

The article's author, Sameera Rajab, who also questioned in her piece the ethnic origins of the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has written controversial pieces in the past. She is known for her support for the late Saddam Hussain and his Baathist regime as well as her adamant opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Ms Rajab is also an appointed member of the upper house of the national assembly, the Shura Council (Consultative).

"Events of the recent presidential elections in Iran and the subsequent images of brutal repression, revealed the hidden face of Iran ? and its ruling government appeared to the public," Ms Rajab wrote in her article. In 2004, Ms Rajab caused an outcry among Shiites after she described Iraqi cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani as an "American general" for his implicit support of the 2003 US invasion.

Ms Rajab's latest controversial article came at a critical time for the Bahraini government, which has been trying to expand economic ties with Tehran but has found itself at odds with Iran for the past two years over media reports questioning Bahrain's sovereignty. Last February, negotiations between Manama and Tehran to import Iranian gas were temporarily halted and Iranian shipping vessels were barred from entering Bahraini waters after an Iranian official described the Gulf island as historically Iran's "14th governorate".

That followed a diplomatic row that broke out in July 2007 after an editorial in an Iranian newspaper claimed Bahrain was a province of Iran, prompting Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, to visit Manama and reaffirm Iran's recognition of Bahrain's independence. Mr Ahmadinejad also visited in November 2007. Following Sunday's suspension of the paper, the Bahrain Journalist Association expressed solidarity with Akhbar Al Khaleej and urged the authorities to lift the ban, which they said violated press regulations and freedom of speech.

Mohamed Fadel of the Bahrain Journalist Association, described the suspension decision as a "dangerous precedent". "The danger in the suspension stems from the fact that it was based on an administrative decision and not a court ruling in violation of the press code itself," he said. Several members of parliament from the Sunni blocs also came out in support of the paper and Ms Rajab, as have several online media outlets and bloggers who proclaimed their support for free speech, if not necessarily the views expressed in Ms Rajab's article.

The editor in chief of Akhbar Al Khaleej, Anwar Abdul Rahman, in an interview with Radio Monte Carlo published by his newspaper yesterday showed no signs of backing down and said that the paper stands by what it published. "As an editor I stand by my responsibility. I had read every word in the article and when I assess the role of Iran in the region for the past 30 years, the Iranian government and state has not been able to achieve anything for its people, but what it succeeded in achieving was creating tension for the rest of the world, including the Gulf states," he said.

"What Rajab said was the truth about those who took advantage of the state in the ugliest form." Sources said the Iranian Embassy in Manama was studying the possibility of filing a defamation case against the newspaper in Bahraini courts. The suspension of Akhbar Al Khaleej was the first for a Bahraini newspaper since wide-ranging political reforms were introduced in 2001. Akhbar Al Khaleej is Bahrain's oldest Arabic daily. The paper is independent but is considered to be pro-government.

Its English publication, the Gulf Daily News, was not affected by Sunday's ban. mmahdi@thenational.ae