Strike over pay silences Bahrain newspaper for a day

Petition by journalists, production crew and delivery staff for two months' overdue salary at Al Waqt, which could face closure.

MANAMA // A one-day staff strike at Bahrain's second-leading independent Arabic daily Al Waqt last week brought attention to the crisis facing the country's newspaper industry as it struggles to keep readers in the age of the internet. Al Waqt is expected to pay a month's salary today, but according to the staff, who have not been paid for two months, it is not clear whether the newspaper will be able to honour its promises.

The staff in recent weeks had presented to the management two separate petitions, one signed by 75 journalists and production crew, and another signed by 62 Bengali newspaper delivery men, demanding payment before last week's talks failed. "It wasn't an action we wished to take but we have families and responsibilities that need to be attended to. We are still hoping that this could be resolved in-house," one staff member from Al Waqt said of the strike.

"If the management fails to honour its promises we will consider other options, including that of legal action and reinstating the open strike," he said. It is believed that 60 of the newspaper's investors are expected to meet on May 2 to discuss the future of the paper and whether they should inject more cash into its operations or shut it down. The attention the strike has received stems from the fact that the widely respected paper had served as an outlet for moderates and liberals, giving a voice to demands for wider freedoms of speech, better accountability of public officials and greater transparency in government activities.

"The financial problem will be resolved, and like every other newspaper we have been affected by the drop in number of advertisers, but the board takes the interests of the staff seriously," the paper's managing editor, Fareed Ahmad Hassan, said last week. He added that despite the newspaper's failing to hit the stands for a day last week, the response from the public has been encouraging. "People were concerned and they missed the paper, and to us it shows how much we are valued by the public," he said.

Recognising, however, that the printed versions of most newspapers are struggling, Mansoor al Jamri, the editor-in-chief of the independent Al Wasat, said that traditional media must learn to adapt to include the new technologies. Al Wasat updates its website regularly throughout the day, posts to Twitter and sends text messages to mobile phones - which they charge for - to disseminate the news. Many of Bahrain's newspapers lag behind in the use of emerging technologies, and fail to take notice of the changing market demographics as the number of internet and mobile-device users increase.

"It is challenging, but we have to utilise all the multimedia technologies available to us for the widest possible reach, especially since we have age groups that are communicating mainly through these technologies today," Mr al Jamri said. "Unlike the US and the West, in the Arab world and the Gulf we are still in the early stage and this is still a very new market and the full potential of the new media has not been reached yet."

Mr al Jamri criticised the lack of support from the ministry of culture and information and its obstruction of the use of new technologies. "The ministry is still in the mindset of the '50s and '60s mentality. They are still paper-based and afraid of television and radio, let alone multimedia and the internet. Unless this mentality changes, Bahrain will be lacking behind other countries," he said.

As for the welfare of Al Waqt staff, Mr Hassan, the managing editor, said: "They had expressed their opinion in a peaceful manner and within their given rights. We respect that right and their message has been delivered to the board." According to one newspaper staff member, they are considering taking part in an annual Labor Day demonstration on May 1, when unionised workers march on the streets of the capital to highlight their demands.