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#FreedomofSpeech

The Middle East needs 'more independent media, not less'

The Bahraini government recently shuttered the country's only independent newspaper. Exiled journalist Nazeeha Saeed writes that the media can no longer hold the region's leaders accountable.

In June the Bahraini Ministry of Information Affairs shut down the Arabic-language daily Al Wasat, the country's only independent media outlet, "until further notice" because it was in "violation of the law" and had repeatedly published "information that sows division in society and affects Bahrain's relations with other states," according to a statement by the ministry that was published by a Bahraini news agency.

Al Wasat is not the only independent journalism outlet to have been banned from working in Bahrain. In the past year, the information ministry has revoked the licenses of a France 24 and Monte Carlo Radio correspondent, an AFP photojournalist, an Associated Press correspondent and photojournalist and a Reuters cameraman. The ministry has also not allowed AFP or Reuters to appoint a correspondent in Bahrain and has prevented other foreign journalists from entering the country.

Journalists who were permitted to enter were only allowed to cover events held by the government and not allowed to talk to the opposition, visit rural areas or even discuss any subject that the government think will put the country in a bad light.

In the Middle East and North Africa, press freedom and freedom of expression are facing significant challenges. The defense of religion, morality and the established order are often the reasons given in these regions for violating media freedom. This is especially true in dictatorships and other totalitarian regimes where media freedom and pluralism are suppressed. Unfortunately this means that wars and latent conflicts like in Syria and Yemen are not receiving the coverage they deserve. Such regimes are also known to detain and threaten journalists as a means to maintain or consolidate their holds on power.

A human right

An independent and free press has an important role in building inclusive societies based on the rule of law, fighting corruption and injustice and giving a voice to minorities and the poor. A free press also supports the foundations of true democracy, where the press acts as the fourth estate to monitor government agencies and expose corruption. A free press' role is also to report on government actions and policies so that the citizenry is aware of what their leaders are doing, and so they can form their own opinions.

Bahraini journalist Nazeeha Saeed (picture-alliance/dpa/EPA/MAZEN MAHDI)

Bahraini journalist Nazeeha Saeed

Article 19 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." These basic human rights should hold true even in non-democratic countries. Countries that choose not to grant a voice to their people through free elections should then encourage a free and independent press to educate the population on government policies and to hold public officials accountable.

More not less

The role of the media is to inform the public and to spread knowledge. Unfortunately the media in the Middle East has mutated to serve only political aims which privilege the few and repress the many. The Media is also being used as a means to spread hate speech, often against minority groups, and to feed ignorance instead of promoting awareness and enlightenment.

To have an inclusive society that respects human rights, we need to empower the press to be useful, professional and critical. Instead of shuttering independent newspapers such as Al Wasat, the government of Bahrain should encourage a greater role for independent media in the country. Only then will the prospect of greater inclusivity and more respect for human rights become a reality.

Nazeeha Saeed is an award-winning Bahraini journalist. You can follow her on Twitter @nazihasaeed.

This commentary is a part of DW's Freedom of Speech Projectwhich aims to highlight voices from around the world on the topics of freedom of expression and press freedom. You can also follow the project on Facebook.

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