Bahrain has announced a new draft press law, long demanded by journalists and rights groups, which scraps jail terms for most offences but
leaves courts to rule on two key areas.
The draft law guarantees freedom of expression as long as religion is not insulted or national unity threatened. The information minister, asked whether offenders could be jailed, said judges would decide.
This is left to the judiciary and is not the affair of the information ministry, Minister Jehad Bukamal (pictured) said at a news conference.
No journalist has been imprisoned in Bahrain since 1999, the rights group Reporters Without Borders said in a March report on the country, which was placed 118 out of 169 in its 2007 press freedom index, behind Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
Kuwait is the only other Gulf Arab state that has decriminalised press offences, the organisation said.
We're happy that Bahrain has decriminalised press offences, but journalists can still be prosecuted under the penal code, for insulting the king or religion for example, Reporters Without Borders' Middle East chief Hajar Smouni said.
It is not clear how the draft law will affect bloggers, and a Bahraini official said blogging would be dealt with in later legislation.
It was not clear when the new draft press law would be presented to parliament for approval. Bahraini journalists said Islamist lawmakers, who have dominated parliament since 2006 polls, might object to the law, particularly in relation to insulting
Islam. But Bahraini officials said they were confident the law would be passed soon because King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has backed press law reform.