x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

'Plotters based in Saudi fed us false news stories', Bahrain opposition editor tells court

Mansoor al Jamri of Al Wasat newspaper, charged with publishing false news stories, says fabricated descriptions of crackdowns by authorities, came from an internet address in Saudi Arabia and were written in a way that did not raise suspicions.

Mansoor al Jamri, former editor-in-chief of the Bahraini opposition newspaper Al Wasat (front), his wife, Reem Khalifa, who is also a journalist in Bahrain, the British former managing editor at Al Wasat, Walid Noueihed (right), and the former head of local news at Al Wasat, Aqeel Mirz,a arrive at a court in Manama yesterday. Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters
Mansoor al Jamri, former editor-in-chief of the Bahraini opposition newspaper Al Wasat (front), his wife, Reem Khalifa, who is also a journalist in Bahrain, the British former managing editor at Al Wasat, Walid Noueihed (right), and the former head of local news at Al Wasat, Aqeel Mirz,a arrive at a court in Manama yesterday. Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters

MANAMA // The former chief editor of Bahrain's main independent newspaper claimed in court yesterday that apparent plotters in Saudi Arabia planted false news stories about abuses to discredit his paper during Shiite-led protests for greater rights in the kingdom.

Violence by security forces has been widespread and well documented since demonstrations broke out in February. But the fabricated reports in were used by authorities to force out staff members and bring serious charges of encouraging unrest.

Al Wasat's former chief editor and founder, Mansoor al Jamri, was linked to publishing false news stories and allegedly inflaming tensions. He has been free on bail since April.

His trial is part of a far-reaching crackdown against perceived dissent. It has included hundreds of arrests, purges from workplaces and universities and accusations of anti-state conspiracies.

Bahrain's rulers have appealed for talks with opposition groups, but have not eased off on trials and other apparent pressure tactics. Shiites account for about 70 per cent of Bahrain's population, but claim they suffer from systematic discrimination that includes being blackballed from top military or government posts. About 80 students were dismissed from the Bahrain Polytechnic school this week for alleged links to the protests.

At least 31 people have died in the unrest in the past four months.

Mr al Jamri testified yesterday before the criminal court that the false stories, describing fabricated crackdowns by authorities, came from an internet address in Saudi Arabia and were written in a way that did not raise suspicions by personnel at Al Wasat, which published the items.

"This was a very sophisticated plot," Mr al Jamri said. "They made the stories look authentic and knew to send them at night when we only had one editor on duty."

Mr Jamri claims the paper was the victim of a plot to undermine its role as the main voice for pro-reform advocates. In March, apparent pro-government mobs damaged printing facilities at Al Wasat. Mr al Jamri also claims that staff members received anonymous threats. His trial is scheduled to resume on Sunday.

Bahrain's authorities have meanwhile started to challenge the many media reports of heavy-handed tactics against the opposition.

On Thursday, the official Bahrain News Agency said it plans to file a suit against the British newspaper The Independent for "wrong and defamatory" coverage. It gave no other details about the possible legal action and there was no immediate response from the London-based newspaper.

The Bahrain turmoil has presented a policy quandary for Washington.

US officials have denounced the violence and urged for dialogue, but have stopped short on any more serious actions against the leadership in one of its top allies in the Middle East. The US State Department's top human rights envoy, Michael Posner, is in Bahrain for talks this week.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch called on Bahraini authorities to halt proceedings before the special military court set up as part of efforts to crush the protests.

It also urged Bahrain to free all those detained "solely for exercising their rights to free speech and peaceful assembly."

The government last week lifted the state of emergency it imposed in March after protests and is calling for a national dialogue to plan reforms next month.