Bahrain releases US journalists after three days, but local reporters are still stuck in jail

Protesters hold up pictures of journalists, doctors, and activists as they take part in a solidarity march asking for their release, during an anti-government protest organised by Bahrain's main opposition party Al Wefaq in Budaiya, west of Manama, May 9, 2014. 

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Four American journalists were released from police custody in Bahrain on Tuesday after being held by authorities apparently for reporting on anti-government protests.  

Journalist Anna Day and three members of her camera crew were arrested on Sunday in Sitra, a village east of the capital Manama, where demonstrations marking the anniversary of the country’s uprising five years ago were taking place.

A statement from the city’s public prosecutor said the four had been charged with "taking part in an illegal gathering with criminal intent and undermining public security,” but were released pending further investigation. A lawyer for Reporters Without Borders said the group were on their way out of the country by Tuesday afternoon. 

Bahrain, home to the US Fifth Fleet, has a habit of detaining foreign journalists as they try to report on unrest in the country, but most are usually released or deported relatively quickly. The same is not true for Bahraini journalists, many of whom have spent years in jail for reporting critically on the government. 

There are currently seven journalists imprisoned in Bahrain, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists:

  • Abduljalil Alsingace, a freelance blogger, was imprisoned in March 17, 2011 during a crackdown following pro-reform protests. In 2015, he went on hunger strike, refusing solid food in protest over the conditions at Jaw Central Prison, where he was being detained.
  • Ahmed Humaidan, a photographer, was jailed for 10 years on December 29, 2012, charged with an attack on a police station. Humaidan was present when the station was attacked, but insists he was only there to document it. His previous work had exposed police attacks on protesters during demonstrations, according to the the Bahrain Press Association.
  • Freelance photographer Hussein Hubail was jailed for five years on April 28, 2014 on charges of inciting protests against public order. Hubail said he was tortured while in police custody. 
  • Ali Mearaj was sentenced to two and a half years in prison in April 2014 for "insulting the king" and "misusing communication devices,” charges he denied. News reports said the charges related to posts on the opposition website "Lulu Awal."  
  • Sayed Ahmed al-Mosawi was arrested in February 2014 along with his brother and charged later that year with rioting and participating in a terror organization, according to CPJ. In November last year he was sentenced to 10 years in prison and had his citizenship revoked, according to news reports. 
  • In early February, photographer Ahmed al-Fardan was sentenced to three months in prison for attempting to attend a demonstration in 2013.
  • Mahmoud al-Jaziri, a journalist for Al-Wasat newspaper, was arrested on Dec. 28 on terrorism charges. He was arrested for "allegedly plotting terrorist attacks funded by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah," according to CPJ. He has denied all charges. 

"Today, the tiny island of Bahrain has become one of the leading jailers of journalists in the world per capita," said Jason Stern, CPJ's senior researcher for the Middle East and North Africa. 

"The American journalists now get to go home, thanks much in part to a tremendous international outcry. But for the Bahraini journalists who remain behind bars, who will speak out for them? These journalists face a myriad of charges like participating in illegal protests, attacking security forces, or attempting to overthrow the government. But the real crime they have committed is journalism. "

The crackdown since what became known as the Pearl Revolution has sought to quell all opposition to the Bahraini royal family. 

On Feb. 14, 2011, while much of the Arab world was in revolt, widespread demonstrations broke out in Bahrain against the ruling al-Khalifa family — a Saudi-backed Sunni dynasty that rules over a majority Shia population (the island nation has a parliament, but it is widely regarded as a rubber-stamp institution for the ruling family’s policies.) 

The demonstrations were brutally suppressed by security forces, which were backed by troops from Saudi Arabia. Dozens of protesters were killed. 

Since then, smaller-scale protests have continued. But so too has the government’s attempts to repress them. 

Human Rights Watch said that in 2015 Bahraini authorities “continued to prosecute individuals, including high-profile activists and opposition figures, for exercising their right to freedom of expression.”

Opposition leader and head of the Al Wefaq party Ali Salman has been in jail since June 2015 after being sentenced to four years.