6-20-2011By Robert Joyce
Human Rights Defenders Program
Robert Fisk, award winning Middle East correspondent for The Independent newspaper in Britain, is the latest target of the Bahraini government’s media crackdown. Last week, the Bahraini government announced that it has hired a U.K.-based law firm and plans to sue The Independent for publishing “unrealistic and provocative articles.”
Nawaf Mohammed Al-Maawda, a government official who made the announcement to a state media source, cited Fisk specifically for engaging in a “defamatory and premeditated media campaign” against Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
How did Fisk attract so much attention from the Bahraini government? His recent articles have condemned the military trial of 47 doctors and nurses, whom the Bahraini government has unjustly accused of stockpiling weapons, stealing medicine, and doing harm to their patients. Fisk reported on his time in Bahrain in February where he witnessed some of these doctors trying to save patients who had been attacked by security forces while the police and armed security forces blocked ambulances from aiding victims of the crackdown. Fisk calls the charges by the Bahraini government “a pack of lies” and “insane.”
Fisk is one of a few people in western media who has been consistently writing about abuses in Bahrain. Independent human rights advocacy groups in Bahrain support Fisk’s claims, stating that these doctors and nurses are innocent, that the confessions recorded were extracted through torture, and that the government is targeting them for treating victims of government violence and sharing the story with the world. Our most recent podcast details abuses in Bahrain, which Human Right First’s Director of Human Rights Defenders Brian Dooley recently visited. Dooley discovered that hospitals are now staked out by government security forces.
Despite the ongoing violence and complete security crackdown, events in Bahrain have not received the same level of coverage as events elsewhere in the region. Multiple factors ranging from the influence of the U.S. and Saudi Arabian governments to the lack of access allowed to foreign journalists in the country can be blamed for this. In contrast, Syria and Libya have received extensive media coverage and harsh condemnation. NATO continues to deploy force against the discredited Libyan regime and the United States and the European Union have leveled sanctions against Syria.
Professor Joshua Landis from Oklahoma University highlights the disparity:
“Bahrain has killed twice as many of its citizens as Syria has if one adjusts for population size. Yet its ambassador was welcome at the Royal Wedding in Britain. Bahrain was given a pass for repressing its revolution.”
Bahrain is a longtime ally of the United States and hosts the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet. Last week, the U.S. welcomed the crown prince in Washington. Also in our podcast, Brian Dooley notesthat the U.S. embassy has created distance between U.S. diplomats and Bahraini human rights advocates. Professor Murhaf Jouejati links the U.S. silence on Bahrain to Saudi Arabia, which has sent troops to assist the crackdown on protesters, saying “Bahrain escaped the kind of criticism Syria got out of deference to Saudi Arabia, which has absolutely no interest in reforms in Bahrain, let alone regime change.”
Deference to Saudi Arabia is seen in the Arab press as well. Al Jazeera has not covered Bahrain as extensively as either Syria or Libya, especially in their Arabic coverage. Fisk himself recently criticized Al Jazeera for its “failure to mention Bahrain.” Al Arabiya has also had extremely limited coverage of Bahrain, beyond covering government press releases. Al Arabiya is Saudi owned and a competitor to Al Jazeera which is based out of Qatar.. The politics of Al Jazeera’s Qatari leadership criticizing a fellow Sunni monarchy is at best complicated.
The Bahraini government is leading a misinformation campaign to allow it to continue the crackdown on democracy-seeking protestors. Fisk’s articles were passionate, but the situation in Bahrain is dire. International media sources in the model of The Independent and others are necessary to combat the Bahraini government’s propaganda. The work of Bahrain human rights advocates like Nabeel Rajab and Muhammed Al Muskati (described in more detail in the above podcast) will fall short unless the international media consistently, fairly reports the truth to the world.