Bahrain offers a perfect example of successful crackdowns, with an information blackout achieved through an impressive arsenal of repressive measures: exclusion of the foreign media, harassment of human rights defenders, arrests of bloggers and netizens (one of whom died behind bars), prosecutions and defamation campaigns against free expression activists, disruption of communications.
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Use of filtering intensified in reaction to political unrest
Although the country has used filtering for years to target political and religious contents (see the Bahrain chapter of the 2011 “Enemies of the Internet” report), since February 14, 2011 – starting date of the rebellion – it has bolstered its censorship efforts in reaction to the unrest destabilizing the Arab world.
According to Arbor Networks, Internet traffic to and from Bahrain, as of mid-February 2011, allegedly dropped by 20% compared to the three preceding weeks, which points to increased filtering being used in response to the events occurring in the country. High-speed Internet access was slowed down to hamper the real-time uploading and circulation of videos and photos taken during protests and crackdowns. Authorities wanted to target some accounts on streaming platforms such as Bambuser and social networks, and blocked YouTube and Facebook pages posting videos of the events. A few months later, its was PalTalk’s turn to be blocked. This online audio and video chat group service had a community chatroom, “Bahrain Nation,” that dissidents used to send messages. The website http://twitcam.livestream.com designed to allow Internet users to circulate real-time information on Twitter, was also blocked.
On the eve of the first anniversary of the Bahrain uprising, in February 2012, the authorities launched a new wave of repression, blocking independent news sites and notably streaming websites, and once again slowed down bandwidth speeds. The live973.info site, which was streaming real-time footage of an opposition demonstration, was blocked, as was the “Wefaq live” page of the audio-streaming site mixlr.com. Access to the iPhone/iPad app via Live Station’s website was also closed off from Bahrain. This app had made broadcasting possible for TV channels such as Lualua TV, jammed since its launch on 17 July 2011. On February 11, the site Witnessbahrain.org, which had been denouncing abuses, was blocked and its activists arrested. The few deblockings of registered political group websites, Aldemokrati.org, Alwefaq.org and Amal-islami.net, that occurred in early 2012 were nothing but a smokescreen.
Surveillance was also strengthened and expanded to include human rights activists and their close friends and relatives. Nokia Siemens Network (NSN) was accused of sharing private netizen data with the authorities.
Waves of arrests, deaths while in detention, and mock trials
In addition to taking these technical measures the number of arrests of netizens and cyberdissidents has soared since February 2011. In September 2011, Bahrain’s Interior Minister announced that anyone posting online messages calling for demonstrations or inciting dissidents to take action could end up in prison. He kept his promise. Among the netizens arrested and later released in recent months are: bloggers Abbas Al-Murshid, Mohamed Al-Maskati and Ali Omid, as well as forum administrators and moderators Fadel Al-Marzouk, Hossein Abdalsjad Abdul Hossein Al-Abbas, Jaffar Abdalsjad Abdul Hossein Al-Abbas, Hamza Ahmed Youssef Al-Dairi, Ahmed Youssef Al-Dairi, Fadhel Abdulla Ali Al-Marzooq, Hani Muslim Mohamed Al-Taif, and Ali Hassan Salman Al-Satrawi. Also on the list of arrested netizens is Hussein Ali Makki, administrator of the Facebook and Twitter pages of Rasad News, a major news source on human rights violations in Bahrain, who was arrested on June 9, 2011. Not to mention blogger and activist Zainab Al-Khawaja (@angryarabiya). Blogger and human rights activist Sayid Yousif Al-Muhafdah has also been reported missing since March 19.
The crackdowns have also entered the courts: on June 22, 2011, a military court gave 21 human rights activists and opposition members harsh prison sentences, upheld on appeal on September 27 after a mass trial intended to serve as an example and impress dissidents. Among those tried was blogger Abduljalil Al-Singace, Director of the Al-Haq Movement’s Human Rights Bureau, who received a life sentence. Well-known blogger Ali Abdulemam, thought of as one of Bahrain’s Internet pioneers, was sentenced in absentia to 15 years behind bars.
A series of pressures and attacks on journalists, bloggers, and activists has led to increased self-censorship. While seemingly trivial, the following reveals the true situation in the country: several dozen students were expelled from a prestigious school for liking a Facebook page. Worse still, was the intimidation campaign led against Bahraini bloggers and human rights activists. Their pictures were circulated online with the caption “traitors.” Nabeel Rajab, Director of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, is on the front line. Prosecuted and repeatedly assaulted, and despite intense pressure, he continues to denounce the repression that is still rife in Bahrain.
One of these cyberdissidents – yet another victim of regime repression – lost his life. On April 9, 2011, netizen Zakariya Rashid Hassan died while in detention, probably after having been tortured after his arrest for “inciting hatred,” “disseminating false news,” “promoting sectarianism,” and “calling for the regime’s overthrow in online forums.” At first, the authorities denied their responsibility, claiming that he had died from sickle-cell anemia. Then an investigation was opened in early January 2012. Two officers accused of having beaten him to death face up to seven years behind bars.
Cynicism shown by the authorities and the international community
The way in which this crisis has been managed exemplifies the authorities’ hard-line cynicism and two-sided discourse, since they are calling for national dialogue and claim to have accepted, in late November 2011, the critical conclusions of an independent investigative commission, yet they continue to wage reprehensible crackdowns on the almost daily protests troubling the Kingdom. Reporters Without Borders has been urging the international community to react by sending a United Nations’ special rapporteur to Bahrain.
The money spent by the regime to improve its reputation and the reluctance of the United States to criticize this country in which it has its main Middle East military base has helped to squelch talk about the events and their repression. The Bahrain Formula 1 Grand Prix, which is scheduled to take place in April 2012, should be the highlight of the communication campaign’s offensive launched by the authorities. It would be a golden opportunity for the regime to regain its prestige and make people believe in an illusory return to normal.