MANAMA, Bahrain – Lawyers for three former top editors of Bahrain's main opposition newspaper on Sunday challenged allegations of unethical coverage by their clients during mass anti-government protests in the Gulf kingdom.
The trial of the editors of Al Wasat newspaper, who were forced to resign from Bahrain's most widely read newspaper after the government imposed emergency rule in March to quell dissent, is part of a sweeping crackdown on the island nation's Shiite-led opposition.
The charges against the three former editors, who pleaded not guilty last month, include publishing false news and endangering public order. If found guilty on all charges, they face at least two years in jail and hefty financial fines.
Two employees of Al Wasat newspaper told Bahrain's highest criminal court on Sunday that the editors overlooked fabricated information because of the difficult conditions the kingdom's only opposition paper faced during demonstrations against Bahrain's Sunni rulers.
The two employees said the newspaper's offices had been vandalized and its staff had been threatened, forcing reporters and editors to work from home.
Al Wasat's founder and former chief editor, Mansoor al-Jamri, told the court during last week's hearing that the paper published the fabricated items after it fell victim to a plot aimed at undermining Al Wasat's role as the main voice for pro-reform advocates.
The false stories, describing fabricated crackdowns by authorities, came from an Internet address in Saudi Arabia, al-Jamri said, adding that the stories were written in a way that did not raise suspicions by personnel at Al Wasat.
Another hearing in the case is set for July 3.
At least 31 people have been killed since February, when Bahrain's Shiite majority started its campaign for greater freedoms and rights in the Gulf kingdom, the host of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. The protests were inspired by uprisings in the Arab world.
Violence by Bahrain's security forces has been widespread and well documented since martial law was imposed March 15. Hundreds of protesters, opposition leaders, human rights activists and Shiite professionals like doctors and lawyers have been arrested. Dozens have been tried in a special security court that had sentenced two activists to death.