Did UK TV news channel Al Arabiya News air a video of a man making a false confession after being tortured? That’s what Hassan Mashaima, an opposition leader to Bahrain’s government, claimed to the UK broadcast regulator OfCom. OfCom found the Al Arabiya program violated his privacy, and now the network must pay the UK regulator £120,000 (about $170,000).
Al Arabiya is a “Saudi-owned pan-Arab news channel,” with a UK license to broadcast in the UK, which is how OfCom got involved.
The Al Arabiya broadcast in question reported on a 2011 “attempt…to change the governing regime in Bahrain from a Kingdom to a Republic.” Mashaima, an opposition leader who is still in prison, was one of a group involved in the attempt and was arrested and convicted for his actions. (More on Mashaima and the 2011 attempt to overthrow the government on the BBC’s website.)
OfCom’s ruling against Al Arabiya’s Feb. 27, 2016 Arabic-language broadcast news report was made in 2017. At the time, the broadcast regulator said Al Arabiya’s code breaches were “serious” and that a “statutory sanction” would be issued. That sanction — the substantial monetary fine — came at the end of January.
OfCom explained that “a financial penalty was necessary to reflect the serious nature of the Code breaches…and to act as an effective incentive to comply with the Code, both for the Licensee and other licensees.” Al Arabiya did not intentionally violate the code, OfCom ruled. However, the regulator found the network did have “ample opportunity” to make sure its broadcast adhered to the ethics code, and failed to do so. OfCom noted that it could have levied a fine as high as £250,000.
Mashaima complained because the program showed “footage of him making a false confession (which had been obtained under torture)…to portray him as a criminal and terrorist,” OfCom reported. Further, Mashaima noted the program didn’t include the 2011 Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry’s statement confirming he confessed after being tortured.
The program also showed a clip of Mashaima making a speech and a brief interview with him. The host of the show called Mashaima the leader of an “unauthorised movement in Bahrain.”
Al Arabiya defended the program as in the public interest, newsworthy, and within the bounds of free expression, adding that Mashaima was a public figure. Further, Al Arabiya argued it didn’t report any of Mashaima’s comments out of context and disputed the timing of Mashaima’s confessional comments, claiming they were not the same as the ones he made after being tortured.
Though OfCom did not determine when the disputed comments were made, the broadcast regulator said that was immaterial because the Bahrain commission found Mashaima had confessed under torture. As such, Al Arabiya “was aware, or ought to have been aware…that the statements being made by Mr Mashaima in the footage…may not have accurately or fairly represented his account of events.”
OfCom ruled that Al Arabiya invaded Mashaima’s privacy and its report was unfair because he was not asked for his response to allegations he had acted improperly, nor had he been allowed to give his account of events. Finally, the network failed to include that the Bahrain commission said Mashaima’s confession was obtained through torture.
“Taking each element of complaint into account separately, OfCom found that material facts were presented, omitted or disregarded in a way that portrayed Mr Mashaima unfairly in the programme as broadcast and that he was not given an appropriate opportunity to comment on the footage of him included in the programme,” OfCom ruled. “We also considered the programme, as a whole, to reach a view as to whether it was unfair to the complainant. For all the reasons set out above, Ofcom considered that, when taken as a whole, the way in which Mr Mashaima was portrayed resulted in unfairness to him.”
iMediaEthics wrote to Al Arabiya to ask if the network has any response to the fine, if it will change any of its practices because of the ruling and if it will air the program again in the future, but all the contact emails bounced back.