10-4-2013By Diana Sayed
Human Rights Defenders Program
The Bahraini regime has frequently cracked down on human rights defenders by prosecuting them for their actions on social media. In an ironic twist raising eyebrows around the globe, this week the Kingdom hosted the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) first Media Forum in Manama. The two-day forum, themed “Mass Media and Telecommunications and their impact on National Security,” was hosted by the Information Affairs Authority (IAA) with participation from around 150 GCC representatives, including GCC information ministers, specialized media and telecommunications professionals, and academics.
The Bahraini minister of state for information affairs, Samira Ibrahim bin Rajab, addressed the forum. She warned that “social networking has become a double-edged weapon” in that “the use of the weapon of information which is too difficult to validate and even if it could be validated, it may easily transform into a Trojan Horse of human rights organizations and advocates of the freedom of opinion and expression.”
Rajab posed this ‘‘pivotal question’’ in her opening remarks to the attendees: “Where is the right of the State in protecting itself from the hazard of the weapon of fallacies and disinformation which could create dangerous repercussions to the detriment of the future of a country?”
In remarks signaling a growing concern over the threat the Bahraini government perceives in the power of social media, Rajab went on to say, “[T]his new state of chaos prevalent on earth precedes similar chaos in the sky constituted by the increasingly-growing presence of telecommunications and espionage satellites orbiting around the globe.”
Freedom of speech was a hallmark demand of popular uprisings throughout the Arab world, but government attempts to clamp down on free expression online are only acting to further fuel discontent. While most states find it difficult to balance the fine line between unfettered freedom of expression through new media and a clear curtailment of fundamental rights under the guise of national security concerns, Bahrain continues to enact repressive policies limiting freedom of expression. Human Rights First has followed reports of around fourteen cases of arrests for posting anti-government tweets or insulting the king on Twitter since the uprising began in February 2011.
Bahrain’s Prime Minister Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa urged GCC countries to adopt a more aggressive media stance against what he deems “misinformation.” He went on to highlight the key role played by the media in shaping public opinion, noting that “credible, constructive and responsible” mass media can disseminate truth and foster the values of unity and cohesion, and therefore stop “biased media campaigns” from “distorting reality, incitement and spread of odd western behaviors.”
As President Obama has told the Bahraini government, “The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail.”
Human Rights First urges the U.S. to speak out on behalf of Bahraini defenders whose activity online has landed them in jail so that they can engage in constructive dialogue with the regime.