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Embattled Editor: In Bahraini Government Crackdowns, ‘Nobody’s Untouchable’

May 20, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Mansoor al-Jamri, former editor of Alwasat, Bahrain's largest independent newspaper, faces charges that his paper intentionally published false news reports to destabilize the Persian Gulf kingdom. Margaret Warner reports on the case and discusses the government's crackdowns with al-Jamri.
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JIM LEHRER: And now Margaret Warner wraps up a week of reporting from Bahrain, that small, but strategic Persian Gulf nation that is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet.

Tonight, she talks to an editor caught in Bahrain’s crackdown on dissenters.

MARGARET WARNER: Mansoor Al-Jamri, former editor of Bahrain’s largest independent newspaper, this week found himself being the story, rather than covering it.

On Wednesday, he arrived at Bahrain’s High Criminal Court to face charges that his paper, Alwasat, intentionally published false news reports to destabilize the Persian Gulf kingdom. At his lawyer’s request, his trial was adjourned until June.

Son of a revered Shia cleric, Jamri spent 20 years in exile in London, then returned about a decade ago to found the paper. The progressive Alwasat was Bahrain’s most popular and profitable newspaper. Its reporters covered opposition parties, as well as the government. And Jamri’s daily column was a voice for non-sectarian moderation.

During Bahrain’s Arab-Spring-inspired protests earlier this year, he urged the Sunni royal family and the Shia-led opposition to negotiate their political differences.

But, after the government imposed a crackdown on March 15, Jamri and his newspaper became targets. He was caught up in a crackdown that has detained more than 1,000 Bahrainis, mostly Shias, doctors, nurses, teachers, journalists, office and union workers, and has cost thousands more their jobs.

Government-run Bahrain TV broadcast an expose, charging that Alwasat published items and photos from other outlets as if they were about Bahrain. Jamri and his two top editors resigned. Within days, they were all criminally charged.

Today, critics say, Alwasat is just another government mouthpiece. For daily coverage of Bahrain, readers here now have only state-linked newspapers.

For nearly two months, Jamri and his Sunni wife, also a journalist, have been keeping a low profile close to home.

He spoke with us yesterday, in his first television interview since being charged.

Mr. Al-Jamri, thank you for joining us.

MANSOOR AL-JAMRI, Alwasat: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: Why do you think you have been singled out for prosecution?

MANSOOR AL-JAMRI: I’m really very surprised, because I was part and parcel of the reform process. I was invited by the king to come to Bahrain to launch this newspaper, Alwasat, which I founded and launched. And it became very successful commercially and politically.

And then, on the 15th of March, 2011, our press was attacked and damaged. And we had to work from homes. Later on, some e-mails cropped up into our system, which we didn’t know they were bogus news, and they were published. Later on, we found all came from one single I.P. address located in a neighboring Gulf state, namely in Saudi Arabia.

They filtered through the system because we couldn’t work. We were working from homes and because the authorities didn’t give us the protection for our journalists, who were targeted in checkpoints and in every other place.

MARGARET WARNER: So, you were set up?

MANSOOR AL-JAMRI: It was a setup. We were framed into it, and later on attacked, using — using it as a launching pad for closing down the newspaper.

MARGARET WARNER: You were founder of this paper. How does this make you feel?

MANSOOR AL-JAMRI: I feel, really, very sad. The Alwasat newspaper was distinct. It enlarged freedom of expression. It also enabled the leadership of the country to understand things that were not understood because there wasn’t the proper coverage.

Ministers, top leadership people, opposition, pro-government, and everybody who was interested in public affairs and issues of Bahrain must read Alwasat. Alwasat was a must-read for anybody interested in Bahrain.

We always acted in good faith, calling for progress towards better democracy and a better reform process. We were part and parcel of the reform process. And to target Alwasat in the way it was targeted, it was targeting the reforms, rather than Alwasat.

MARGARET WARNER: So, what message do you think they were trying to send with the arrest of you and some of your top editors?

MANSOOR AL-JAMRI: I think they want to say that Bahrain now is different; whatever we had before is finished.

I think it is, in a way, to drive despair or to instill fear in many people, so that, oh, gosh, I mean, with all the suffering that we are having, we would love even to go back to what we used to be just prior to the protests.

And I think the message is, you won’t even get that level. What we have now, Bahrain has turned from a political crisis into a humanitarian crisis.

MARGARET WARNER: Where does the basic neutering of Alwasat, the charges against you, how does that fit in the broader crackdown of what is going on now?

MANSOOR AL-JAMRI: It is creating — I mean, for — if you target Mansoor Al-Jamri, you will be targeting others as well.

Mansoor Al-Jamri came to Bahrain by an invitation of the king. He came to Bahrain and he was allowed to function and to work on a free — a larger margin for freedom of expression. And to attack that margin, basically, you’re sending a message, look, even Mansoor was targeted, and he’s been persecuted.

And, therefore, I think the message now, nobody’s untouchable. Everybody — we’re coming to everybody, and we’re going to do whatever we like to do.

MARGARET WARNER: The government insists this is about the Sunni-Shia divide in this society. Is it?

MANSOOR AL-JAMRI: It’s not about Shia-Sunni divide, although the confessional divide is being superimposed on the problem, so that to cover it up.

I think this is between aspirational society looking at what is happening in the world and wanting to live in a better condition. The majority of the — majority of Bahrainis, Sunnis and Shias want to have democracy, a constitutional monarchy. And they don’t want to have conflict with the ruling family or with the neighboring countries around Bahrain.

As it is now, if you are a Shia, you are told, you are unwanted, you are a — no citizen, you are zero, you are out. If you are a senior official, you will be got ridden of. If are you a Sunni, you’re OK, you’re our friend.

That is the — that’s a very dangerous message for the medium- and long-term. You could create security, but you cannot create stability. And without stability, you don’t have prosperity and you can’t have democracy and human rights.

To continue in the way as it is now, it is only you’re planting problems for the future. It cannot continue. This is not sustainable. We are either one nation and one country, or we can’t continue like this.

The way it is now, they have created two nations in one country living apart. One is frightened and one is comforted. This cannot continue forever.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the government says, once we have restored law and order, which we think we basically have, that we can go back to some sort of political consultation.

Do you think that’s possible?

MANSOOR AL-JAMRI: You have many casualties, how will you be addressing those — the injuries, you know, to the nation, people who died in custody, people who died during the protests, those who had been sacked from their jobs, the medical profession that had been targeted, the schools, the way that they were treated?

You can’t say to somebody, forget it. And unless you come to realize that something wrong has happened, you just can’t forget it, basically.

MARGARET WARNER: You still face trial.

MANSOOR AL-JAMRI: Yes, indeed.

And many people of — many of my fellow countrymen are also facing difficult times. We all, as a nation, are facing a very difficult time. And we need to speak very frankly to each other. And we need to hear each other. We have not been listening to each other for the last month — for the last two months. It is time that we start listening it to each other to find an exit to this crisis.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you very much.

MANSOOR AL-JAMRI: You’re welcome. Thanks.