The Independent has dismissed claims that the government of Bahrain plans to sue it for defamation as a ‘half-cocked PR stunt”.
The Bahrain News Agency (BNA) yesterday reported that the country’s Information Affairs Authority had commissioned a UK-based legal firm to file a case against the British daily.
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The agency quoted Bahrain’s publications director-general Nawaf Mohammed Al-Maawda as saying: “The Independent has deliberately published a series of unrealistic and provocative articles targeting Bahrain and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
He also accused the newspaper of orchestrating what the BNA described as “a defamatory and premeditated media campaign against both countries, failing to abide by professional impartiality and credibility in its one-sided news-coverage and reports”.
The BNA report added: “In this regard, he cited particularly leading Independent Middle-East based reporter Robert Fisk.”
Al-Maawda “called upon all media to observe accuracy and objectivity and project the true image”, the BNA said, adding that “all doors remained open to visit Bahrain and gauge the real situation on the ground as the Kingdom is steadily regaining normality and stability”.
But Bahrain is likely to fail if it does try to sue for libel in the High Court because of the decision of the House of Lords in Derbyshire County Council v Times Newspapers Ltd (1993) that local authorities and government departments cannot sue for libel.
Responding to the reports, Independent foreign editor Archie Bland said: “This is plainly some kind of half-cocked PR stunt.
“They appear to think that by doing this they can intimidate us and other media outlets into not reporting Bahrain. This will not work.”
He added: “I do wonder whether they have come after us because we are one of the smaller media organisations.”
Media law specialist Mark Stephens, a partner with law firm Finers Stephens Innocent, said: “Undoubtedly Cambridge-educated Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah, the ruler of Bahrain, will have to sue in his own name.
“You will be able to sell tickets to listen to his explanation of his country’s human rights record”.
Bahrain has been the scene of pro-democracy demonstrations as part of the “Arab spring” unrest which has swept across parts of the Middle East.
Saudi Arabian troops were sent into the country to help the kingdom’s Sunni muslim minority government suppress protests and demonstrations inspired by the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
Sunni and Shi’ite Bahrainis took to the streets to demand political reforms in early February.
State media are reported to have used sectarian language to paint the democracy movement as a Shi’ite bid to overthrow the royal family and create a religious state with Iranian backing.