* King Hamad: ‘Wilful foreign media campaign to distort facts’
* Solve any such problem by letting in foreign media -watchdog
* Bahraini monarch expresses commitment to media freedom
By Andrew Hammond
DUBAI, May 2 (Reuters) - King Hamad accused foreign media on Wednesday of exaggerating unrest and inciting violence in Bahrain after the Gulf Arab state hosted a Formula One race last month that tu r ned into a public relations headache.
The U.S. ally has been in turmoil since activists launched protests in February 2011 after successful popular revolts in Egypt and Tunisia. The authorities tried to crush the uprising for democratic reforms with martial law and bringing in Saudi troops. But more than a year later, unrest has not gone away.
Police fired tear gas and stun grenades to stop dozens who tried to protest in Manama on Tuesday. Activists reported tear gas and birdshot fired in Jidhafs on the edge of the capital on Wednesday in a rally for the release of a hunger striker.
Bahraini authorities drew criticism from media freedom groups when they stopped some journalists entering the country ahead of the April 20-22 Grand Prix race. Critics said Manama staged the race as an improper show of normality in the country.
“It is quite clear that Bahrain has been targeted by purposeful, wilful campaigns in some foreign media that sought to distort true facts, instigate violence, sabotage, hatred and hostility among citizens in our united nation,” the king said in a speech carried by the state news agency BNA marking the International Day for Freedom of the Press on Thursday.
He gave no details on which media he was referring to, but said Bahrain would assure freedom of expression.
Bahrain has not been given the same attention in Gulf-owned, pan-Arab media outlets as uprisings in other Arab states, though Qatar-owned Al Jazeera has raised its coverage in recent weeks.
“There should be no tampering with the right of Bahraini citizens to express their opinions, nor any ceiling to freedom and creativity, except professionalism, national and ethical responsibilities and observance of the people’s unity and national interest...,” the monarch said.
Answering criticism over its media policy regarding the Grand Prix, the government said that it was not trying to suppress coverage and had let in more than 200 journalists to cover the race. It said that following the race it would admit non-sports journalists who had been barred earlier.
“If Bahrain believes it is the victim of distorted coverage abroad, there’s a simple solution: allow foreign journalists to enter the country and report freely,” said Robert Mahoney, Deputy Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“Independent and opposition journalists in the country have endured the worst conditions since King Hamad bin Issa Al-Khalifa assumed the throne in 1999,” he told Reuters.
Opposition parties hold weekly rallies and riot police clash almost nightly with protesters in villages of the Shi‘ite Muslim majority demanding reforms that would reduce the extensive powers of the ruling Sunni Muslim Al Khalifa family.
The Sunni monarchy says it has started reforms in the police, judicial and media after a report by rights investigators criticising last year’s crackdown on dissidents and referring to widespread use of torture.
But it has given no ground on the central opposition demand - full powers for parliament to legislate and form governments.
Columnists in Bahraini daily papers - all but one is pro-government - have denounced the main Shi‘ite opposition party Wefaq as “the Bahraini Hezbollah”, in reference to the Iranian-backed Shi‘ite militant movement. Many Bahrain activists follow online sites based abroad, such as Bahrain Mirror.
State television does not cover opposition rallies or feature opposition leaders as guests. A new minister of state for information, Samira Rajab, appointed last month, has been a prominent defender of government policies in Arab media.
A former supporter of the Iraqi Baath party of late dictator Saddam Hussein, Rajab regularly denounces Wefaq as a believer in Iran’s system of clerical government. Rajab says the opposition have declined offers to appear on state television.
Ali al-Deiry, a well-known Bahraini journalist who fled abroad during the crackdown, ridiculed King Hamad’s remarks.
“The gap is widening day after day between what the king says and the reality on the ground. The facts blatantly contradict what he says,” he told Reuters from a location outside Bahrain that he did not want revealed.
“There is no reform in the media at all, and it was a surprise for them that foreign media (during Formula One) did not wait for approval from them for what it said.” (Reporting by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Reed Stevenson and Mark Heinrich)