SHURA Council members yesterday did a U-turn and approved an amendment that would soften a law on spreading false information in Bahrain - just a week after they rejected it. The government proposed a rewording of the legislation, making it illegal to "deliberately" spread false information with the "intention of causing harm".
It is a relaxation of a law that currently penalises those found guilty of simply spreading false information, which carries a penalty of up to two years in prison and a minimum fine of BD200.
The proposal was designed to support freedom of speech, but the Shura Council vetoed the amendment last week after members argued it was impossible to determine if someone deliberately committed the crime, or if they did so unintentionally.
However, Justice, Islamic Affairs and Endowments Minister Shaikh Khalid bin Ali Al Khalifa attended yesterday's session and said Bahrain was under international pressure to come up with new legislation on freedom of speech.
"I missed last week's session because I was on official business abroad, but thankfully I am here to ensure that a revote is taken by the council before its summer recess," he said.
"We have to make one thing clear - the current article is inapplicable and judges can't implement it because it contradicts the true values of freedom of speech.
"There is huge international pressure on the government to make freedom of speech legislation more flexible and for that we came up with amendments in line with European laws, months before being directed by the BICI (Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry) specifically to amend this article."
He said that under new freedom of expression laws, real damage has to be done through the spread of lies and false information for it to be considered a crime.
"We know there are a lot of lies and false information being spread, but for the judge to take action a crime has to happen as a result - for example violence or sabotage, etc," added Shaikh Khalid.
"I don't need to list it, everyone is aware about what I mean here."
Shura Council chairman Ali Al Saleh said the government was forced to accept amendments to its laws after His Majesty King Hamad approved the BICI report and agreed to implement it.
"The government has no choice but to implement and here they are doing so," he said.
"We should help them because the BICI is right and this article needs a change to be in line with practised freedom of speech principles."
The amendment on spreading false information was passed despite opposition from some members of the Shura Council, including Dr Lulwa Al Awadi.
She argued that no-one could force decisions on Bahrain's legislative authority and the government could not dictate the BICI recommendations to the chamber.
"We acknowledge that the government has agreed to fulfil all of the recommendations in the report, but does any country from which BICI chairman Professor Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni holds nationalities implement it?" she questioned.
Council services committee chairman Abdulrahman Abdulsalam said it seemed the government wanted to encourage people to lie and spread false information.
"We have to please the West by implementing freedom of speech and encourage lies and false information just because it is not harmful," he said.
"Lying and spreading false information by itself is a crime against religious values and humanity.
"We should expect more now on television and the Internet."
However, Shura Council legislative and legal affairs committee vice-chairman Rabab Al Arrayedh backed the softening of the law, saying the same legislation was used in France.
"The French Penal Code states that the spread of lies and false information has to be deliberate and lead to either damage or danger, which means that the government and the BICI didn't come with this out of nowhere," she said.
"There is debate on the issue in France regarding what is deliberate, but the majority believe it is right considering that many people don't get thrown in jail just for spreading information for what they believe is from trusted sources."
Fellow member Dr Abdulaziz Abul said Bahrain's reputation for freedom of speech abroad was "atrocious", meaning change was needed.
"I was part of a delegation just a few days ago to London and everyone criticised Bahrain for violating human rights and it was saddening that we have reached a point where we have an atrocious reputation," he said.
"It is for one reason and that's because decision-makers in this country practise restrictions more than freedoms, while it should be the opposite."
Councillors have already approved other amendments to the Penal Code, which include jail sentences for those convicted of publishing false documents, leaflets or fabricated pictures that harm national security and negatively affect the economy for up to two years, with minimum fines of BD200.
They omitted two articles targeting people taking part in foreign political, social or economic gatherings that intend to harm Bahrain and prosecuting those who produce, promote, spread or publish pictures that may harm the country's reputation.
The amendment will now be referred to His Majesty King Hamad for ratification.