Slamming the Door on Press Freedom in Bahrain
I was supposed to be in Bahrain this past weekend to lead an international freedom of expression mission with representatives of several prominent advocacy groups, including the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, the Committee to Protect Journalists, PEN International, Index on Censorship, and Reporters Without Borders. However, after approving our mission in early April, and even offering to arrange meetings with relevant officials, Bahrain’s Ministry of Human Rights and Social Development decided to deny permission for the joint mission just days before we were to depart, meaning our organizations had already incurred travel and other expenses. The letter we received cited “new guidelines” that prohibit more than one organization from visiting at a time, and assured us that this was “merely an organizational matter.” But given that this is the second time this year that Freedom House has been denied entry to Bahrain, the ministry’s explanation seems rather dubious.
So we watch from afar via Twitter as the regime continues its assault on political reformers, activists, and journalists. The 140-character bursts of information from the front lines describe escalating violence in a protracted struggle to bring democratic change to a despotic island kingdom. Pictures posted to Twitter and Flikr expose the carnage that results when committed civilians face a security apparatus backed by the region’s foremost military power, Saudi Arabia, and armed by the world’s leading superpower, the United States.
Our mission, which was scheduled to begin just after World Press Freedom Day, was to assess the freedom of expression situation in the country and follow up on the recommendations made to the Bahraini government by a similar mission in November, as well as those of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry.
Since the crackdown that began in February 2011, hundreds of journalists, students, teachers, and professionals have lost their jobs because they supported the reform movement. Some have been reinstated, but often in lower-ranking positions. Several journalists have been forced into exile, and the sole independent newspaper, Al-Wasat, no longer provides the autonomous voice it once did. At least two media workers have been killed while in custody, according to the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, and one of the country’s most prolific bloggers has been missing for several months. A recent report by the Bahrain Press Association, an independent organization founded by exiled Bahraini journalists, has documented in great detail the “systematic campaigns of intimidation” conducted by the regime against journalists, bloggers, and other media workers. And Freedom House just downgraded the Not Free country even further in its annual Freedom of the Press report because of the harsh crackdown throughout 2011.
Adding injury to insult, the head of one of the organizations set to participate in our mission was arrested at the Manama airport on the day we were to have arrived. Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights and director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, was charged with “participating in an illegal assembly and calling others to join.” His arrest came just days after he expressed concern that Bahrain’s current judicial system “is a tool used against human rights defenders and people calling for democracy and justice.”
Before February 14, 2011, I knew little about Bahrain, despite the fact that I had lived just next door in the United Arab Emirates. I was familiar with prominent blogger Mahmood al-Yousif (Mahmood’s Den) and the 2006 antisectarian campaign that ran afoul of authorities for its message of “No Sunni, No Shia, Just Bahraini.” When the protests broke out not long after Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, I began paying attention on Twitter, and was appalled by the violent crackdown against activists whose requests for political reform seemed so limited and reasonable. Since then, Mahmood has gone missing, and the regime has sought to portray the peaceful uprising as a sectarian, Iranian-inspired threat.
The Bahraini authorities’ claim that they are making progress on improving human rights rings hollow amid the continuing harassment of activists, including the unfair imprisonment of well-known Bahraini human rights defender Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. His principled stance has inspired a global campaign for his release, yet it failed to derail the recent Formula One racing event, which went forward despite mounting violence and calls for its cancellation. Preventing international rights organizations from monitoring the situation on the ground further belies the platitudes of the government, which has spared no expense in hiring the slickest U.S. public-relations firms to burnish its image amid the ongoing repression.
Despite these clear attempts to throw wool over the eyes of the world, we will continue to raise awareness about the regime’s violations of human rights, and in particular their restrictions on freedom of expression, a right guaranteed under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.