When Saudi Arabia executed a Shia cleric, triggering anger among Shia populations in the region, Bahrain’s Sunni leadership announced that it officially supports its neighboring country, and that it would take legal action against critical voices — a comment that was not well received among Bahrain’s majority Shia population.
Shortly after the news emerged that Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr and 46 other political prisoners had been executed on January 2, Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior released a statement declaring its support for Saudi Arabia in what it referred to as its “actions in the fight against terrorism and other criminal activity.” The ministry also said that legal action would be taken against “anyone attempting to use the recent verdicts in Saudi Arabia to heighten sectarian tensions or to incite violence.”
“The authorities are only allowing one voice in the country,” explains a Bahraini journalist who spoke to Journalism Is Not A Crime on the condition on anonymity. “This is what they usually do. The other side is forced to be silent.”
The journalist, who has been a reporter in Bahrain for the last 16 years, has requested that her name not be revealed – for fear of getting arrested or losing her work license.
“If the government cares about people that oppose the execution of someone in Saudi Arabia, then you can’t predict what they are going to do to a journalist like me, who has a permit from the government to work,” she says. “I don’t want to risk my life for saying it out loud – though it’s very obvious from their announcement that they are going to punish anybody who is against them.”
The Ministry urged people to obtain information from official sources and “avoid misusing social media to spread false and misleading information in an attempt to incite sectarianism or violence.” It also said it would not “accept interference in any form in the verdicts of the Saudi judiciary or any other friendly country since these are sovereign matters.” Those who violated these orders, it said, “will be held legally accountable.”
As a result, over the last couple of days, it has been hard to find critical voices in Bahrain’s media, which are licensed and closely monitored by the government. Some press simply published only the official news released by the authorities; others, mainly pro-government newspapers, openly praised the execution of Al-Nimr.
But while it’s clear that Bahraini authorities are ready to clamp down on dissidents' voices, there are no official guidelines as to what the journalists can or cannot say; it come’s down to a “sense of logic,” according to the Bahraini journalist with whom I spoke. Reporters, for example, must refrain from using words government has not pre-approved. This includes calling al-Nimr a “martyr” or the Saudi rulers “criminals,” but it also includes less obvious phrases, such as referring to the Shia population as “majority.” If the press ignore these guidelines, they may face official complaints from the government.
Anonymous Social Media Take-over
But preventing journalists from covering important events has so far not prevented Bahrainis from seeking alternative sources of information, or from calling for protests against the execution, which some consider to be politically motivated.
“People were aware from the early hours that they can’t express themselves,” says the Bahraini journalist. “But that didn’t stop people from going out on the streets, insulting the Saudi royal family, condemning the execution, and holding up Al-Nimr’s pictures. In some places, police reacted as usual with teargas and birdshot. Many people got injured and some were arrested.”
While most local press stayed silent, social media was unsurprisingly very active, and events soon made the headlines around the world.
“People have access to the world through the internet. They are reading the Independent, New York Times, and so on,” she says, but then adds a warning: “The Bahrainis have to be careful; there’s a risk.” She tells me that so far, at the time of our interview, two people had been arrested after they posted critical comments on Twitter.
To protect their identity, citizen journalists and those working for various movements use the names of towns and villages in Bahrain when posting valuable information online. In many cases, much of this information would not come to light if it were not for them.
“All around social media there are anonymous people posting against what happened to Al-Nimr. They are reporting from the ground if there’s a protest. They use words not approved by the government. We don’t know who’s running these accounts, and because it’s anonymous they can’t arrest anyone,” the Bahraini journalist says.
Different From 2011, But Worse
Bahrain is ranked #163 out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Border’s 2015 World Press Freedom Index. Since the popular uprising in 2011, the authorities have targeted the country’s journalists, activists, photographers, and those using the internet to disseminate information.
Since then, the situation for press freedom hasn’t seen much improvement. The Bahrain Press Association released a report in early January documenting violations against rights to freedom of the press and expression from 2011 to 2015. According to the report’s finding, 2015 (so not including the aftermath of the Al-Nimr execution) has witnessed the highest rate of violations in the last few years, even when compared with 2011.
The report documented a total of 894 violations against the rights of media workers and political and human rights activists over the past five years – 59 percent of these were violations against reporters, photographers and media workers, and 16 percent against social media users.
The Bahraini journalist who spoke to Journalism Is Not A Crime was among the many reporters who took to the streets in 2011 to cover the protests. Much has changed since 2011, she explains, but not necessarily for the better.
“In 2011, most journalists who covered the events were punished or sacked from their jobs. We were all punished for shedding light on the voices other than the government. But the arrests weren’t justified by law, and they had to release everyone and give them back their work.
“After international pressure and condemnation, the Bahraini government calmed down a little bit and learned from its mistakes. But now it uses laws to prevent people from doing their jobs. And they created new laws. So they use different methods than before.”
The restrictions on covering Al-Nimr’s execution have also been formally justified by law. Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior statement referred to two articles in Bahrain’s Penal Code, which state that, “Any person who makes defamatory statements in public against a foreign country (…) will face imprisonment or a fine” and: “Any person who deliberately disseminates false reports, statements or malicious rumors to damage public security, terrorize the population or cause damage to the public interest shall face imprisonment or a fine.”
But these laws are often used politically to crack down on dissenters. They allow the authorities to arrest independent journalists on trumped-up charges, or to prevent them from operating.
“They say you aren’t allowed to insult or criticize the Saudis by referring to an article in the law stating that nobody is allowed to insult a foreign country. But they are letting the loyalists and pro-government insult the Iranians without punishment. Some of the newspapers write badly about Iran and call it a terrorist country,” the Bahraini journalist explains.
Another method commonly used to censor the country’s journalists is the revoking of work licenses, which the government can easily do if it doesn’t approve of media reports. In addition to a work license, reporters must also obtain a special permit from the Ministry of Interior to cover security related issues – such as protests. Following the 2011 uprisings, this type of permit is usually only given to journalists working for foreign media.
But one of the most prevalent forms of censorship in Bahrain is probably that by the journalists themselves: self-censorship. Since the media crackdown in 2011, some people simply stopped working or reporting on political issues.
“Some of them just got silent,” says the journalist. “They changed their way of writing, they report on other stuff, or they just left journalism completely. The fear makes people do something different, which is understandable.”
And there are some topics the Bahraini journalist who was interviewed for this article admits she would never dare cover.
“I would do more reports, and more depth and analytical stuff, but I can’t. And there are some topics where I can’t even go there. Like the government giving Bahraini citizenships to Sunni people from abroad in order to raise the level of Sunnis in the country. We can’t cover these things, although we can see that the number of Sunnis is growing”.