(Adds Bahrain government comment)
DUBAI, April 20 Media freedom groups have accused Bahrain of using this weekend's Formula One motor race as a propaganda exercise to improve its international image, saying it wants to stop journalists reporting on anti-government protests.
With police firing tear gas and stun grenades to disperse demonstrators, Bahrain has turned back some reporters at the airport in the days leading up to the race, while allowing others in. One Reuters correspondent was still waiting for an entry visa as Grand Prix cars took to the track for Friday's first practice session amid tight security.
"Bahrain wants the international attention brought by hosting a Grand Prix but doesn't want foreign journalists to wander from the race track where they might see political protests," said Robert Mahoney, deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York.
"Bahrain tells the outside world it has nothing to hide. If that's the case then it must allow journalists entry visas and let them report freely," he added.
An official from the Information Affairs Authority said more than 200 journalists from various media organsiations had entered the country to cover the race, including from the news agencies Associated Press, Agence France Presse and Reuters.
"We always knew and expected coverage of events in Bahrain as part of the context of the F1 being held so one can hardly claim we are trying to squelch coverage on events in Bahrain," said the information agency's spokeswoman. "We also have invited non-sports related journalists who were unable to get a visa for this week to apply to come after the race."
Bahrain has been in turmoil since a democracy movement erupted more than a year ago. The Arab Spring protests were initially crushed with the loss of dozens of lives, including those of security personnel, but youths still clash daily with riot police and protesters have promised to disrupt Sunday's race with "a day of rage".
Bahrain's chief of public security said a number of "rioters and vandals" had been arrested for taking part in unlawful protests.
The Reporters Without Borders group also attacked Bahrain's handling of the Grand Prix, which was cancelled last year due to the protests but which is due to go ahead on Sunday.
The group said it was "launching a campaign and a petition condemning the appallingly repressive policies of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa's government since the start of the Arab Spring and its current propaganda focus on the Formula One Grand Prix".
Thomson Reuters, the New York-based parent of Reuters, is a sponsor of the Williams team which is entered for Sunday's race.
A number of journalists who cover the full Formula One World Championship season are already in Bahrain for the Grand Prix. However, a Dubai-based sports reporter for the Associated Press, one of two from the U.S. news agency accredited to cover the Grand Prix, said he was turned back at Manama's airport this week.
A journalist from Britain's Financial Times said he had spent several hours at the airport on Thursday trying in vain to gain entry, before booking a flight back out.
Protests have intensified in the week leading up to the race as mostly Shi'ite Muslims take to the streets. The country's Sunni elite crushed last year's uprising, bringing in troops from neighbouring Saudi Arabia, and more than 30 people including security personnel died.
In February the government introduced temporary visa restrictions for some Western nationals, limited international rights groups to five-day visas and delayed a trip by the U.N.'s chief investigator into torture to July.
A Reuters Formula One correspondent who covers the entire Grand Prix season has been allowed into Bahrain along with a television producer and photographer.
However, Dubai-based Reuters correspondent Andrew Hammond was among the reporters still awaiting visas late on Thursday, along with others from the AP and Agence France Presse.
"We cover sports events throughout the world, under all kinds of circumstances, and we see no reason that journalists should be prevented from coverage in Bahrain," said AP's Managing Editor for Sports Lou Ferrara. "The government should not dictate or prohibit sports coverage in any way. We hope to see a favorable resolution soon."
In May 2011, Bahrain expelled the previous Reuters correspondent assigned to cover the country. Reuters employs about 3,000 journalists worldwide.
Bahrain declined to issue visas to some journalists during martial law last year and when protests swelled on the Feb. 14 first anniversary of the uprising. One Dubai-based journalist said he was called by the information ministry in February telling him not to come although he had already been issued a visa. (Reporting by Reed Stevenson; Writing by David Stamp)