July 8, 2014 — When Bahrani reporter Nazeeha Saeed went to cover an anti-government protest May 22, 2011, in the capital city Manama, she anticipated seeing a resurgence in public resistance after military forces had shut down demonstrations two months earlier. Saeed did not expect to be summoned to a police station where she would be detained, interrogated and tortured for 13 hours about her reports on the uprisings.
“I didn’t participate in any part of the demonstrations, I was there just to cover them,” she said.
Saeed, a Bahraini correspondent for France 24 and Monte Carlo Doualiya radio, has spent most of her career covering breaking news, politics and business. In 2001, she was one of the first journalists in Bahrain to dedicate a human rights page to her newspaper, Alayam. Her experience with this type of coverage piqued her interest in the 2011 protests that followed shortly after the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia, which sparked the Arab Spring.
Reporters like Saeed flocked toward protests in the Pearl Roundabout, the Bahrani equivalent to Egypt’s Tahrir Square. They wanted to tell the stories of Bahraini citizens who, inspired by the success of political reforms in Egypt and Tunisia, took to the streets and clamored for an end to the country’s increasing security control.
Despite their neutrality, many journalists were frequently interrogated by authorities and accused of undermining the regime. Saeed said Bahrain was under martial law at the time she was arrested and, resultingly, brought to the police station without reason — or at least a justified one. At the time of the protests, the regime interrogated, detained and tortured people who they suspected to be opposition, who had strong political opinions or who were Shia, Saeed said. Given that Bahrain was ruled by a Sunni royal family, and the majority of anti-government demonstrators were Shia, the regime scrutinized everyone outside its immediate circle.
“When I was called to the police station, it was confusing because I’m none of the above: I’m not part of the opposition, I don’t identify myself as Shia — I came from a Shia family, but I don’t identify myself as Shia because I don’t practice and I wasn’t really against the government,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do, especially because some of my colleagues who participated in the protests were detained, and we didn’t know anything about them for days and weeks sometimes. That was so scary.”
As a correspondent for French media companies, Saeed benefited from international pressure on her case. When her editors learned of her detainment, they approached Bahrain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Royal Court, the French Embassy in Bahrain, the Bahraini Embassy in Paris, and anyone else they could reach to demand Saeed’s release.
“After all of this pressure, I was out after 13 hours. I was the only one who got out in such a time. My colleagues who were detained the same day as me, they stayed there for at least a week,” Saeed said.
Immediately after her release, Saeed was still in shock from the trauma. She left Bahrain for Paris and then Beirut, where she recovered for 10 days and two months, respectively. During that time, the Ministry of Interior had opened a case on her behalf, “because they wanted to keep their record clean or something,” according to Saeed.
When she returned to Bahrain, Saeed followed up with the Ministry of Interior but never received any answers. After reflecting on how she benefited from the pressure of her editors and international organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and the International Federation of Journalists, Saeed decided to leverage her case and seek justice not only for herself, but also for her colleagues.
“After all the international attention my case received, I thought of my colleagues who worked for local newspapers and media outlets and nobody cared about them and nobody talked about them. Because I worked for French TV and radio, I got all that attention. So I thought, Why don’t we raise our voices? Why don’t I encourage my colleagues to talk about their experiences and tell people that Nazeeha Saeed was not the only one arrested and tortured … They faced a much, much worse situation than mine, but nobody paid attention.”
To bring attention to the injustices against journalists in conflict zones across the Middle East, Saeed has launched a project called Aman, which means security, in order “to train journalists and advocate for them, and to provide detainees with legal support,” she said.
Saeed has been developing Aman since 2013 when she became a John Smith Trust Fellow, joining a network of 14 other Bahrani fellows and over 400 additional fellows across the Middle East and former Soviet Union. The idea for this project arose when Saeed began connecting her colleagues with international organizations that support journalists, and successfully getting out more stories on the torture her colleagues faced, simply for doing their journalistic duty of seeking the truth and reporting it.
“At first, it was just one-to-one. I was encouraging them to talk about [the torture] and telling them that they don’t have to hide the truth,” she said. “I told them, ‘These organizations are there to talk about [imprisoned reporters] and to raise these issues … Why don’t you shock them with whatever bad experience you faced? Don’t wait for them to come to you.’”
Currently, Saeed is developing the advocacy component in cooperation with the international organizations — CPJ, IFJ and RSF — that have been assisting her since 2011. She also has the support of the Media Legal Defence Initiative, which is coordinating the legal support for detainees. While the legal support from an established organization like MLDI is underway, Saeed said she is still waiting for the training to come through.
“I think the government will target anyone who creates or works for the detainees, so there [are] threats and risks in implementing Aman; that’s why I’m doing it low profile,” she said.
Once she is able to fully implement Aman, her vision is for reporters in the Arab region to have a better understanding of their rights in situations such as riots or detention.
“[Aman] will not change journalism,” she said. “It will provide training for journalists to be better journalists, and it will highlight professional journalism and show them how to protect themselves.”
by Megan Devlin
Photos: Courtesy of Nazeeha Saeed