In the last two years, Bahrain authorities had resolved to set up a targeted filtering system and to arrest netizens on the pretext of fighting terrorism and maintaining national stability. Since early 2011, while democratic demands and popular protest movements have been rocking the Arab world, their strategy has been vacillating between intensifying censorship of the political opposition and concessions in the form of released prisoners.
An ingrained targeted filtering system
The authorities’ efforts to pursue technological innovations has gone hand-in-hand with a tightening of Internet control. A strict filtering policy governs Internet use, focused on contents related to political or religious issues, or which are deemed to be obscene or capable of tarnishing the royal family’s reputation. Among the sites blocked are opposition websites and those considered “anti-Islamic,” discussion forums on taboo subjects and certain news websites. Online news websites such as ezaonline.com, and various forums such as Sitra http://www.sitraisland.net and Bharainonline.org have been made inaccessible.
In early 2009, Sheikha Mai Bent Mohammed Al-Khalifa, Bahrain’s Minister of Culture and a member of the royal family, launched a “anti-pornography campaign” which led to the closing of 1,040 websites, even though some of them had nothing to do with the subject. The blocking of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) and of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights betrays the government’s intention of attacking sites critical of the regime, the royal family or the Parliament. Some YouTube, Wikipedia and Facebook pages have been adversely affected by this campaign.
This selective filtering policy also applies to social networks, particularly when they discuss topics deemed controversial. On 9 October 2010, for example, the Facebook page of opposition leader Abdul Wahab Hussein was blocked. Facebook currently has 253,000 members in Bahrain.
However, the use of proxy servers such as Hotspot Shield and Your Freedom, is increasingly common in the kingdom.
A news-reactive Internet censorship
The government reacts swiftly to breaking news. Following the pro-democratic demonstrations which began on 14 February 2011 in Manama, the country’s capital, filtering was intensified thanks to software supplied by the U.S. company SmartFilter.
The authorities resorted to blocking the accounts of Bambuser, a streaming platform which allows users to directly share online videos made with cell phones. YouTube pages containing videos of the protests were rendered inaccessible. One Facebook group of 6,000 members which had called for a demonstration against the regime on 14 February was censored by the authorities two days after the page was opened. The Twitter account @Nabeelrajab, which belongs to the President of the Bahrain Human Rights Centre, was among those censored.
Furthermore, high-speed Internet connections have been slowed down since 14 February, undoubtedly to hinder the uploading and downloading of videos and the dissemination of live photos of the demonstrations. According to the company Arbor Networks, Internet traffic to and from Bahrain in mid-February fell 20%, as compared to the three preceding weeks.
On 14 February 2011, King Hamad ben Issa Al-Khalifa made a televised speech to express his condolences to the families of the two demonstrators killed while crowds were being dispersed, and ordered an commission of inquiry to be set up. According to the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, some anonymous SMS messages were sent which called for pro-government demonstrations.
Cell phones under pressure
In 2010, the repression spread to cell phones. On 7 April 2010, the Ministry of Culture and Information banned a Blackberry cell phone chat group and threatened the offenders with legal action. Mohamed Suleiman, a journalist who was relaying via his “Urgent News” application free daily news briefs from six of the country’s leading dailies, was forced to stop transmitting these news alerts. The Assistant Underscretary of Press and Publications, Abdullah Yateem, justified this ban by pointing out that certain newspapers and telephone messaging services had not been approved by the authorities. He expressed concern about the impact on the public that such news might have and the “chaos and confusion” it could cause among readers.
These chat groups are very popular in Bahrain. They allow users to exchange various types of information such as traffic updates, the presence of police speed traps (radar), cultural exhibits, religious information, etc. Eleven thousand people were receiving “Urgent News” alerts.
Excessive laws and decrees
Numerous cybercafés are under tightened surveillance and are prohibited from having a separate closed room that could allow Internet users to privately consult websites. In fact, each screen must be visible to all in order to make surveillance easier. This control is coordinated by a commission comprised of four ministries, which monitors compliance with the rules governing the non-admittance of minors and computer station visibility.
The Internet is governed by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), established by Legislative Decree No. 48 of 2002 promulgating the Telecommunicatons Law. Its scope of application was extended to online media. Although a 2008 amendment eliminated prior censorship and prison sentences for reporters, journalists and netizens can still be prosecuted by virtue of the anti-terrorism law or the Bahrain Penal Code.
Two decrees that specifically concern the Internet were adopted in 2009. The first allows websites to be closed without a court order, merely at the request of the Minister of Culture. The second requires the growing number of Internet service providers – currently about 20 – to block pornographic websites or those likely to incite violence or racial hatred.
Netizens under pressure
Committed to a security-based approach in reaction to the Shiite minority protests in the summer of 2010, the regime detained two bloggers under inhuman and degrading conditions and openly flouted their rights, in violation of international agreements signed and ratified by the Kingdom.
Judged alongside some 20 other human rights activists, bloggers Ali Abdulemam and Abduljalil Al-Singace, who had been arrested on 4 September 2010, were harshly treated while in jail. According to the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, blogger Ali Abduleman allegedly stated during the trial: “I ws tortured, beaten and insulted. They threatened to get my wife and other members of my family fired from their jobs. I was questioned without a lawyer present and the officer there with me looked as though he were a security agent. He ignored my denial of the accusations made against me. He never let me answer his questions and answered them himself.” When he appeared before the court, Abdeljalil Al-Singace protested against the “moral and physical torture” to which he had been subjected and the threats of rape made against his relatives. He suffered four heart attacks while in custody. Allegedly, he also pointed out that he was deprived of medical care by the guards and that, despite his rapidly deteriorating health, he was never given any medication.
On 22 February 2011, as a gesture to appease the opposition and demonstrators, the authorities suddenly released the two bloggers, as well as 21 other opposition and human rights activists who had been on trial at the same time, after multiple hearings and a trial parody marked by the collective resignation of the initial defence lawyers. The latter had demanded that the trial be suspended and an investigation started into the torture allegations, as provided by law. Nabeel Rajab, Director of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, stated on U.S. TV channel CNN that some 400 prisoners were still behind bars.
Abdeljalil Al-Singace, spokesperson and head of the human rights office of the Haq movement of Civil Liberties and Democracy, had already been arrested in 2009 for allegedly launching a government-targeted estabilisation campaign. On his blog, alsingace.katib.org, he denounced the anti-Shiite discriminations, as well as the deplorable status of public freedoms in his country. Ali Abdulemam, a very active blogger considered by Bahraini netizens as an Internet pioneer, had been arrested in 2005 for posting criticisms of the regime on his blog. As a contributor to the blogger worldwide network Global Voices, he has spoken in numerous international conferences to denounce human rights abuses in Bahrain.
The two netizens were charged with defaming the kingdom’s authorities and publishing “false information about Bahrain’s internal affairs" with the aim of destabilising the country.
Mohammed Al-Rashid was also victimised as a result of the government’s repressive policy. The netizen was arrested in October 2010 for “spreading false information with the aim of undermining public security.” On 4 January 2011, he was released after posting bail in the amount of USD 530. He is now restricted in his displacements and his trial is still underway. According to the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, this cyberdissident was known for denouncing – mainly on online forums and websites such as Bahrain Online and AlJazeera Talk – human rights violations in the country and the lack of professionalism of journalists with close ties to the regime. He acted as a relayer of opposition views often omitted in the traditional media.
Defenders of netizens and human rights activists have not been spared. Nabeel Rajab was denied entry into the courtroom when the bloggers’ third hearing began. On 2 December 2010, already the victim of obvious harassment, the human rights activist was questioned for over an hour by national security agents in the Manama airport as he was preparing to board a flight to Greece. Prior to his release, he had been threatened. His personal computer and cell phone were allegedly confiscated and all the personal files and information stored on these devices were copied without a warrant. In the fall of 2010, he had also been the target of a smear campaign in the state-controlled media. He had discovered after reading the newspapers on 5 September 2010 (specifically the Gulf Daily News) that he was considered to be a member of a so-called “sophisticated terrorist network.”
Journalist Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, who did an outstanding job of covering these events, was the target of an online smear campaign most likely spearheaded by the authorities.
The regime, which has been brandishing national security as a reason to muzzle dissident opinion in the last few months, has so far shown itself to be pragmatic. The future of the Internet and freedom of expression in Bahrain therefore depends on how the political situation will evolve and what latitude the regime believes it can afford.