- By CLIFFORD KRAUSS -
The New York Times - MANAMA (Bahrain) - April 9, 2011 - For years, Mansour al-Jamri led what was, by all accounts, a charmed life.
Having returned to Bahrain a decade ago at the personal invitation of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, he enjoyed a certain degree of immunity from government pressures, even when the prosperous, independent newspaper he started, Al Wasat, made things uncomfortable for a minister or two.
In the last two months of rising tensions and violence, his was a voice of moderation, urging both the Sunni royal family and leaders of the predominantly Shiite protest movement to sit down and compromise. He wrote columns criticizing government repression and corruption, and others condemning moves by protesters to march on the royal palace and barricade the country’s main highway — acts that eventually provoked a sweeping crackdown over the last three weeks.
But suddenly, Mr. Jamri found himself out of a job, forced to quit last weekend to keep Al Wasat open. He now spends his days clearing out his office and preparing to face prosecutors on Monday. They have accused him of publishing false stories to incite Shiites to rise up against the government.
“They have taken away my baby,” said Mr. Jamri, who says the false stories were planted. “When they touch and attack Al Wasat, it is a message to everybody that there is a new Bahrain. They are re-engineering the country.”
Speaking out extensively for the first time since his arrest, he said on Friday that he did not want to consider what could happen to him next. In an interview conducted in part in a car as his wife nervously drove around the city trying to avoid military roadblocks, he said he received threatening text messages every day, and when he called back he was greeted with taunts inflected with mock Shiite slang expressions.
Mr. Jamri is the mild-mannered son of the late Sheik Abdul-Amir al-Jamri, once a fiery Shiite protest leader whose photograph is still hung prominently in the meeting rooms of Shiite activists. But Mr. Jamri, now 49, took a different path from his father. He became a mechanical engineer and made the rare personal choice of marrying a Sunni woman of Western tastes who is also a journalist.
He lived and worked in Britain for 20 years before returning to Bahrain at a time when the royal family was trying to finesse a political opening after a previous period of unrest and repression.
He was offered a position in the cabinet, but he decided instead to build Al Wasat, and it has since become the most profitable and only major independent newspaper in this tiny island country. Al Wasat distinguished itself from other newspapers and government television by covering the opposition parties, particularly when they pressed the government over charges that senior officials were buying up beachfront property at rock-bottom prices.
However, over the last few days, after a one-day shutdown and Mr. Jamri’s resignation, Al Wasat has undergone a thorough makeover, emerging as a mouthpiece for the government.
Under a new emergency law, criticism of the government is grounds for closing not only newspapers, but political parties as well.
This week, the government shut the offices of the Waad, a liberal opposition party, and arrested the deputy of the top leader who is himself already in jail. Professional medical and educational associations have been closed in recent days, and four doctors and nurses who have treated wounded demonstrators have been arrested this week, bringing to 11 the number who have been seized since the crackdown began, according to the organization Physicians for Human Rights.
As Mr. Jamri tells the story, his troubles have been building ever since March 14, when the military and masked thugs attacked masses of demonstrators camped out in the central Pearl Square, and Saudi troops entered the country to bolster conservatives in the royal family. “I mediated between the two sides, and both sides used me to reach common ground until March 15,” he said.
Early that morning masked men wielding swords and clubs broke into Al Wasat’s press room and seriously damaged the printing presses. Masked men continued to surround the building over the next week, preventing employees from going to work without a police escort. Mr. Jamri wrote the interior minister asking for a meeting, but got no response. Reporters and editors started working from home, leaving the newsroom understaffed, particularly late at night.
In early April, over a three- or four-day period, e-mails with stories and photographs began surfacing in Al Wasat’s system. They were cleanly written with notes saying they had been edited, and even included a phone number. They were relatively small stories — a person fainting after being beaten at a police checkpoint, a young man being assaulted by unknown assailants.
The catch was that the stories and photographs were taken from other news outlets, some from other countries, with names of people who did not exist. The picture of a car with smashed windows, said to be owned by a doctor attacked by unknown assailants, was actually a car owned by a pro-government member of Parliament whose car suffered damage during last year’s election campaign.
“They were believable news,” Mr. Jamri said. “You see my wife panicking at a checkpoint; people are getting harassed every day. They were not unbelievable, not like stories of explosions of buildings.”
Last Saturday night, pro-government Bahrain TV broadcast what it called an investigative report charging that Al Wasat “deliberately targeted the security and stability of the Kingdom of Bahrain.”
The report said, “It did this by disseminating false news and reporting fabricated events regarding security developments in the Kingdom of Bahrain.” The broadcast highlighted the published stories and photographs next to the original versions in other news media.
“The guy made a mistake,” Mr. Jamri said of a newsman who ran with the stories. “The guy pumped them right to the layout guys, without editors.” He said computer experts had found that all the false stories came from one company in a neighboring Arab country. He said he would identify the company only to the prosecutors when given the chance next week.
“It was the last thing that crossed my mind, that they would attack my presses and then plant things,” he said.
International human rights groups have taken up Mr. Jamri’s cause. The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement saying it “condemns the Bahraini government’s strong-arm tactics, which effectively forced a change in a prominent paper’s editorial management.”
Local activists are incensed. “Someone working for the Ministry of Interior put the information in the paper and knew it was wrong,” charged Mohammed al-Maskati, president of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights. “They wanted him to quit, and the paper has totally changed.”
Bahrain TV has not backed away from its charges, and the government Information Affairs Authority has characterized Bahrain TV’s reporting as fair and thorough. The Bahrain News Agency has posted the fabricated stories on its Web site, with links to the photographs and original reports from which they came.
Last Sunday, the day after the Bahrain TV broadcast, Al Wasat was prohibited from publishing. Mr. Jamri and two other senior editors resigned that night, in hope that the paper could be saved. The next day the paper was allowed to publish and was temporarily edited by two Iraqi editors.
But on Monday, the two Iraqi editors were summoned to the Information Affairs Authority, and then taken to the National Security Agency for seven hours of questioning, according to Mr. Jamri. After they refused to testify that Mr. Jamri deliberately published false information, Mr. Jamri said, they and their families were escorted to the airport and deported without their belongings.
Mr. Jamri says he has not even begun to think about his future. “I’m trying to recover from the shock,” he said. “They are sending a message that nothing is untouchable in Bahrain.”