In May 2011, the Bahraini authorities arrested journalist Nazeeha Saeed, who was covering popular demonstrations in the country for France 24 TV and Radio Monte Carlo. Throughout her detention, Nazeeha was subjected to torture and abuse, leading her to file for a lawsuit against the policemen and women who oversaw her investigation, but no convictions were handed down. Nazeeha remained in Bahrain for five years, and tried to continue practicing journalism despite attempts to restrict and silence her. Eventually, however, the suppression became unbearable and she decided to leave for France.
Nazeeha arrived in Paris with nothing but a suitcase, a temporary visa in hand, and no clear plan. It was a fresh start in journalism and a forced adaptation to a new world. She now lives in Berlin, Germany.
Tell us about the last five years you spent in Bahrain after your arrest. How did you manage to stay and work despite what happened?
The thought of leaving didn’t even cross my mind at the time. Forty-eight hours after my release, the TV channel France 24 insisted I be sent to France for medical treatment. Ten days later, however, I began to feel the psychological effects of what I had gone through at the police station, so I asked to return to Bahrain because I needed to be with my family.
Three months after that, when tensions returned to the streets, I automatically picked up my microphone and headed to the field. Fear crept in on me again when I saw the police on the streets. Some of them were astonished to see me and asked "Are you still here?” as if surprised that they had failed to break my will.
After that, the harassment increased. I was denied entry to press conferences under false pretexts. One time, they claimed that my name was not on the list. Another time, they said the media outlets that I work for are not that important, knowing fully that I was working with France 24, Radio Monte Carlo and Al-Hayat newspaper.
They wanted me to adopt their official narrative and refer to protesters as terrorists. I wasn't willing to do that.
I was also banned in 2013 from covering the Formula One race, although I had been covering it since 2004. I had also been the president of the Bahrain International Circuit Media Club for two years. I was upset and asked officials how long they planned on continuing this treatment, and they told me that I should reconsider my reporting style. They wanted me to adopt the official narrative of what was happening on the streets at the time and refer to protesters as terrorists. I wasn't willing to do that.
There were times when I accompanied other journalists to demonstrations and the police would take us to detention centres under the pretext of checking our IDs. They would keep us there until the protests ended. I was terrified of these situations because they brought back memories of what happened to me in 2011. I recall crying and having panic attacks, but I did my best to hide it so they wouldn't notice my fear. I remember once one of the officials asking me, “Are you still here? You claimed that you were tortured but you look fine.” He wanted to see me broken.
What ultimately made you leave?
In 2016, the police revoked my press accreditation and the Ministry of Information ordered me to renew it. As per procedure, I submitted an official letter from Radio Monte Carlo, but they rejected the application. I realised that I had to stop work immediately because if I went on air it would be considered a violation of the law as I would be working without a licence. I asked the ministry for an explanation, and after three months of stalling they finally told me that my accreditation would not be renewed.
Two weeks later, I went to the airport to travel on holiday but was prevented from boarding the plane. I went home and made several calls to understand what was happening, but no official body took responsibility for my travel ban. I tried to leave the country four times, but to no avail. Several international organisations (such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International) issued statements asking the Bahraini government to allow me to travel. At the same time, I received a notice to appear in court on the grounds that I was working without accreditation. I realised then that this was the final blow, and it affected my mental health - I was forbidden from work, and forbidden to travel. I felt suffocated.
Eventually, and with the help of international pressure, I received a phone call telling me that my travel ban had been lifted. That night, I packed my bag and flew to Paris without a plan, but in the hope that the media organisations that I was working with would help me. That was the beginning of a new battle.
This was the final blow, and it affected my mental health - I was forbidden from work, and forbidden to travel. I felt suffocated.
How did France 24 and Radio Monte Carlo react when you moved to Paris?
They immediately told me that I could not work with them in France, and I truly felt that they had let me down. I’d been working with them for twelve years, and all that I went through was because of the work that I did for them. But they weren’t willing to take even some responsibility for any of it. France 24 offered to cover legal fees for my case, but that was not enough. Fortunately, I was a member of a French union that supported me. We had prolonged negotiations with the Human Resources department at France 24, and they eventually agreed to pay a small monthly stipend so that I could pay my basic living expenses until I found a job.
Realistically, what did you expect from them?
I was useful to them as a journalist on many levels: not only did I cover Bahraini affairs, but the entirety of the Gulf region, in addition to covering sports news. They could have hired me as a news or programme producer. The least that they could have done for me as a journalist who worked with them for twelve years was help me network with other organisations for potential work. Sadly, their treatment was disgraceful.
Was it easy to resume your work as a journalist from Paris, or were there challenges?
At first, not all media outlets knew that I had left Bahrain. I was still receiving requests from websites like Raseef22 to cover the news, and that enabled me to work for nine months as though I was residing in Bahrain. The year 2016 was politically tumultuous in Bahrain. The authorities revoked the accreditations of most journalists and prevented them from working. Many opposition charities and groups were closed down and leading figures were arrested. The citizenship of Sheikh Issa Qassim - the main Shiite authority in Bahrain - was also revoked. I was following and covering all this from Paris, and I too became part of these events when the Bahraini court convicted me of working without accreditation and fined me 1,000 Bahraini dinars ($2,600).
Some outlets stopped asking me for commentary when I informed them that I had left the country, as they preferred voices from within Bahrain. Since I couldn’t continue covering developments on the ground as if I was still there, I gradually shifted from news articles to writing features and political analysis.
I lost a lot of connections and there are things that I can no longer write about, such as the cultural fora in Bahrain. But at the same time, I've made new contacts with sites like Orient XXI who ask me for in-depth reports every once in a while. The move to Paris required a lot of flexibility, adaptability and new learning. Sometimes, I notice that some Arab journalists find it difficult to adapt in the diaspora, especially those who have a certain style of writing. They end up not continuing in their job and struggle to build networks and relationships.
It seems like you’ve also started writing about new topics. We now see your byline on articles about gender and LGBT rights in the Arab world, for example …
I didn’t start writing about this topic after moving to Europe. I’ve been writing about gender and sexuality since I was in Bahrain but under a pseudonym. But to answer this better I want to go back a bit. Moving to Europe drastically changed my life. Not only professionally but also with my personality. Back in the Gulf, I lived a life of luxury. There were people who did a lot of chores for me: cleaning my house, preparing my food, cleaning my clothes. When I moved to Europe, I was forced to do all of this on my own and it was a big challenge. I am now used to it, and I don't think I'll ever go back to that "Nazeeha" again. These changes also impacted how I see society. In the past, I would write under pseudonyms because I was afraid of public reactions on issues such as gender and sexuality. Now, I write more openly, because I’m convinced that there is nothing wrong in writing about these issues, and because now I feel stronger and more able to confront society.
It is the beautiful moments I experience with friends, or a delicious recipe from a Palestinian friend… this is home.
You’re also still writing about Bahrain and women's rights, such as the plight of women awaiting divorce in the Ja`fari courts, and political developments, such as the Bahraini parliament's decision to reduce its powers in April 2021. Are you worried that your articles may have consequences for your family still in Bahrain?
These issues still interest me and push me to write. I feel the parliament’s vote to reduce its own powers and ability to debate is ridiculous and this prompted me to comment. My style of writing about these matters has not changed since I left Bahrain, but I am somewhat cautious. Unfortunately, I’m not completely free to write about everything going on there, because my family still resides in Bahrain. I don’t deny that I’m unable to touch on many topics because they are extremely sensitive. I am compelled to exercise some form of self-censorship to ensure that my work does not affect my family.
How do you see the situation in Bahrain today?
When I left Bahrain in 2016, there was no freedom of press or expression. This hasn’t changed. Unfortunately, what has changed is that people have become accustomed to being silenced and not talking about politics. All journalists, including myself, practice self-censorship, which is why the number of journalists summoned by the Public Prosecution has decreased. Independent newspapers were shut down, and when relations with Israel were officially normalized in October 2020, Bahrain-based journalists did not comment. Even those known for their solidarity with the Palestinians and who are critical of Israel remained silent. They are unable to express themselves freely and they’re not willing to take risks that could land them in prison.
I do not hear in your words any signs of hope. Do you imagine that one day you will visit or return to Bahrain?
I never said there is no hope. If it weren’t for hope, I wouldn’t have survived. I believe in change and it will undoubtedly happen. I might go back to Bahrain one day, but I don't know if I ever want to live there again. I have changed a lot, but I still feel close to home.
Can exile ever become a home?
It is possible. That is why I always tell Arab journalists who are forced to live outside their countries that we are here for one another. I understand that those who flee their countries seeking asylum feel as if this is the end. But that’s not the case. It is possible to find a homeland in exile. It’s a bit hard to describe, seeing as I am still searching for an answer to this after five years. That said, I know that a home is not just a physical place. Home is my little flat here in Berlin. It is the beautiful moments I experience with friends, or a delicious recipe from a Palestinian friend… this is home.
* Nazeeha Saeed at the Stiftung Exilmuseum Berlin. Photo courtesy of Nazeeha Saeed.