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Al Arabiya faces UK ban for interview with tortured Bahraini

Ofcom says Saudi TV station wrongly presented Hassan Mushaima's confession as wilful testimony, and breached his right to privacy
Hassan Mushaima addresses protesters at Pearl Square in central Manama in February 2011, shortly before his arrest (screengrab)

A Saudi-owned television channel could face closure in the UK after it committed a "serious" breach of British broadcast rules in broadcasting an interview with an imprisoned Bahraini torture survivor.

The future of Al Arabiya News in the UK hangs in the balance after independent regulator Ofcom found that it infringed on the privacy of imprisoned opposition leader and torture survivor Hassan Mushaima, when it broadcast footage of him obtained during his arbitrary detention in Bahrain.

Arabic-language Al Arabiya News, which is broadcast in the UK and across Europe and the Middle East, could now face a potential £100,000 fine or suspension of its licence after a complaint was made on behalf of Mushaima by a US-based rights group.

The case follows a similar decision by Ofcom in 2012 which saw Iranian state broadcaster Press TV stripped of its UK broadcast licence.

Mushaima, who has been designated a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, is the co-founder of Bahrain's largest opposition political group, the now-dissolved al-Wefaq.

He was arrested in 2011 during a pro-democracy uprising and was sentenced to life in prison by a military court on charges stemming from his calls to establish a republic in Bahrain.

Interviewed under threat of torture?

On 27 February last year, Al Arabiya News broadcast a segment about 2011 pro-democracy protests in Bahrain, including what appeared to be an interview conducted with Mushaima.

During the broadcast the programme's presenter claimed Mushaima was part of a cell accused of "trying to change the governing regime in the Kingdom of Bahrain".

However, Mushaima claimed that the interview took place while he was under threat of torture, a claim that was accepted by Ofcom in its judgment on Monday.

Al Arabiya has diverged from journalistic ethics and allowed itself to be a propaganda tool to polish the image of torturers

- Ali Mushaima, prisoner's son 

Mushaima also said that statements he had made calling for Bahrain to become an "Islamic Republic the Iranian Way" were made under duress and after he had been tortured.

"We've upheld a complaint against Al Arabiya News for unfair treatment and unwarranted infringement of privacy. These are very serious breaches for which we will be considering a statutory sanction," an Ofcom spokesperson told Middle East Eye.

The prison interview, the exact timing of which in 2011 or 2012 is disputed, came in the wake of Mushaima's initial arrest when he was subject to torture, according to the findings of an independent Bahrain report.

The report, published by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) and backed by the UN Special Procedures panel, detailed torture, including direct blows to the body, sleep deprivation, drenching in cold water and threats to his family.

Right to privacy breached

And in its judgment, Ofcom found that the imprisoned opposition leader's confession was wrongly presented as wilful testimony and breached Mushaima's right to privacy.

Ofcom also found that Al Arabiya News also failed to make clear that Mushaima has consistently maintained his innocence and that there were well-documented allegations of torture against the Bahraini authorities, including the finding of the BICI and the UN Special Procedures. 

Additionally, Al Arabiya News failed to provide any opportunity for Mushaima to freely respond to the allegations made against him.

The regulator is now considering what form of sanction to take against Al Arabiya News. It could range from a major fine and the threat of suspending its licence to a less-damaging on-air apology.

Mushaima, who is 69 years old, is currently in remission for lymphoma cancer, and is currently serving a life term in Bahrain's infamous Jau prison, where rights groups say prisoners are subjected to torture and arbitrary deprivation of medical care.

Bahrain report admits inmates beaten at 'torture' prison
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Campaigners have also told MEE that he has not received appropriate medical attention for more than eight months.

His son Ali Mushaima, said in a statement that the programme was "deeply distressing" to the entire family.

"There was nothing more painful to my heart than knowing the torture that my father went through in his imprisonment. Al Arabiya's deplorable programme shows my father at his most vulnerable and it deeply distressed our whole family.

"Al Arabiya has diverged from journalistic ethics and allowed itself to be a propaganda tool to polish the image of torturers, while tarnishing the image of activists."

Ali Mushaima, who has been in contact with his father in prison by telephone, said his father described the use of the video as a "wholly political act". Bahrain has consistently denied allegations of torture and political retribution.

A Bahraini boy holds a poster portraying Sheikh Ali Salman, head of the Shia opposition movement al-Wefaq, in 2015 (AFP)

In its defence, Al Arabiya News had argued that the interview was conducted in 2012 by a freelance journalist granted access to Mushaima by Bahraini authorities. 

It argued that the BICI finding that Mushaima was a victim of torture relate solely to the events of 2011 and that as such Mushaima's torture was not relevant in 2012.

Ofcom made no judgement on the timing of the interview, however Mushaima says he did not give any media interviews in 2012.

Nonetheless, Ofcom dismissed Al Arabiya's argument and found that: "Given the high-profile and well-publicised nature of these events, it is Ofcom's view that Al Arabiya News was aware, or ought to have been aware, at least by the date of the broadcast, that the statements being made by Mr Mashaima [sic] in the footage filmed in early 2012 may not have accurately or fairly represented his account of events."

Al Arabiya... has been free to reinforce a false narrative conflating legitimate pro-democracy activism with terrorism

- Husain Abdulla, complainant

Husain Abdulla, executive director of Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) and Hassan Mushaima's representative in the complaint, said: "While more prisoners of conscience are tortured in Bahrain's prisons every day, Al Arabiya – a mouthpiece for the Saudi government – has been free to reinforce a false narrative conflating legitimate pro-democracy activism with terrorism. Until now. We welcome Ofcom's sound judgement in this case and expect a sanction to match the violations committed."

Al Arabiya News is not the first Middle East-owned television station to fall foul of Ofcom rules. In 2012, Iranian state broadcaster Press TV was taken off air in the UK after Ofcom revoked its licence. 

The ruling came after the regulator said Press TV broadcast an interview with imprisoned Newsweek and Channel 4 journalist Maziar Bahari, which had been conducted under duress.

Ofcom said it "formed the impression that editorial decisions on the channel were being controlled by the offices in Tehran, instead of the UK".

The regulator levied a £100,000 fine against the broadcaster and withdrew the licence after Press TV failed to make payment.

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