Bahrain: Decision to Halt Al-Watan Journalists' Dismissal Temporary Measure, Worst to Come

2020-01-31 - 10:09 p

Bahrain Mirror (Exclusive): Governmental "Al-Watan" newspaper in Bahrain temporarily halted the decision to lay off 12 journalists after a meeting held between the Labor Ministry and the newspaper. This is but a move to patch up a severe crisis. The fact is that the structural financial crisis hitting this newspaper, which has been funded by the Royal Court for over a decade, is only a demonstration of the larger financial crisis that the Court itself has been experiencing since it lost control over its public debt.

Despite Gulf support, the debt continued to rise to $37 billion with World Bank predictions that the debt would continue to rise by 114 %. Economists say Bahrain's budget stability will not be achieved before 2024. However, this demands that the Government of Bahrain have annual non-oil revenues of more than 1.5 billion dinars, which is almost impossible under existing economic administration.

Amid this atmosphere, how will Bahraini newspapers cover their expenses? All Bahraini newspapers currently published in the market are affiliated with parties within the ruling family, and this is no secret. These newspapers need direct or indirect financial support to cover their expenses. But like other sectors, newspapers have been affected by the country's general economic stagnation.

In 2019, businessman Hazem Janahi predicted that "some print newspapers would not be issued anymore," in addition to the closure of a number of shops, retail stores and car showrooms due to these economic conditions. It seems clear that print newspapers are experiencing financial problems that may push them out of the market.

There has been no information so far indicating that the Royal Court will stop supporting newspapers close to it, and so is the case with the Prime Minister's Court. However, the decline in ad spending has caused financial difficulties for newspapers. Commercials are the second largest source of income for some newspapers after government support.

The president of Bahrain's International Advertising Association, Khamis Al-Muqla, attributes the decline in spending to "reduced spending by large advertisers such as telecommunications, banks and agencies whose activity accounts for a large share of advertising exchange in Bahrain".

Commercial entities are not the only ones seeking to control their advertising spending, as the government has approved a "significant reduction in advertising expenses". A government official told Bahrain Mirror that the government binds any authority with three annual ads.

"We have been working for two years on reducing our publication purchase and subscription expenses [...] We don't buy many copies of these newspapers. It's almost just copies for the offices of the main officials," he noted.

Years ago, government contributions were a good resource for Bahraini newspapers, but nowadays it is limited to a very small number of subscriptions. Perhaps this explains the outrage of Al-Bilad newspaper, which is a platform that expresses the Cabinet's views, at social media accounts that repost the newspaper's news pieces. The newspaper even threatens to take legal action against such accounts. 

"Digital advertising activities and social media outlets are estimated at about 10% of all traditional advertising," Al-Muqla says.

Perhaps such figures explain the statement of the Bahrain Journalists Association (BJA) (Governmental body) headed by Ahdiya Ahmed, in which it warned news pages on Instagram of legal proceedings against the republication of materials published in Bahraini newspapers. The statement also hinted at financial issues.

"We must distinguish between the right to free expression and the practice of journalism [...] The profession means obtaining licenses from the competent official authorities, resulting in the establishment of a commercial company that is subjected to the rules of business, thus allowing it to publish advertisements to finance its activity and pay the salaries of its employees," BJA said.

The crisis of Al-Watan newspaper, which justified the decision to lay off some of its journalists (before later retracting it) by "company reconstruction to achieve public interest", gives a general idea about the future of an abandoned press that no longer has contributors and cannot breathe without the support of a government that needs support itself.

Arabic Version