Self-censorship: Bahrainis’ Refuge from the Guillotine of Government Pursuit

Before the commencement of the 55th session of the Human Rights Council (HRC) on 26 February 2024, ongoing human rights violations in Bahrain have been exposed. This is despite the government’s vigorous efforts to conceal these violations, particularly the freedom of opinion and expression, by claiming superficial reforms before the international community. However, monitoring the human rights situation in the country reveals the gloomy reality in the field of suppressing freedoms and criminalizing freedom of opinion and expression. As a result, self-censorship has become a prevailing pattern for Bahraini citizens out of fear of government prosecution.

The concept of “self-censorship” spread in Bahrain after the government suppressed the popular movement demanding reform and democracy. It launched a campaign that continues to this day against any opinion opposing or contrary to its policies. This concept is not limited to the self-censorship practiced by media and journalists due to the laws restricting the freedom of the press and media in Bahrain. However, it also includes a much wider spectrum, extending to all segments of Bahraini society. By criminalizing freedom of expression by the Government of Bahrain and resorting to a systematic pattern of violations against any official orientation, self-censorship has become the best solution for Bahraini citizens. It helps them avoid the consequences of legal prosecution and political retaliation for violating the regime, criticizing it, or even expressing an opinion on any public matter in detail.

This topic presents one aspect of the breakdown of Bahrain’s human rights situation. As a retaliatory measure, the Government monitors and tracks anyone who contravenes its orientation or goes beyond self-censorship by participating in public decisions, criticizing government policies, or merely demanding reform. In response, their security services carry out summonses and investigations and force individuals to sign pledges not to express opinions again. This can often lead to more severe retaliation by fabricating terrorism charges, bringing the individual to trial, and sentencing them to imprisonment, simply for stating their opinions.

Self-censorship refers to the restrictions imposed on oneself concerning freedom of expression, either due to fear of violating Bahraini domestic laws restricting freedoms, or fear of retaliation by authorities for opposing their decisions or vision. This trend gained momentum after 2015, with Bahraini courts beginning to issue malicious sentences for charges related to freedom of expression. They handed down prison sentences for posting tweets on the X platform (previously known as Twitter) against activists Hameed Khatam and Taiba Ismaeel. Ismaeel, a mother of three, was accused of insulting the King and inciting hatred of the regime. A group of clerics, including Sayed Majeed Mishal, President of the dissolved Shia Clerics Council, Sayed Yassin Qasim, Sheikh Aziz Hasan Salman, and artistic director Yasser Nasser, were sentenced to imprisonment for their participation in a sit-in in Duraz.

There is a prevailing understanding that many topics have become prohibited. Expressing opinions on domestic policies, such as objection to elections, the performance of ministries and government agencies, violations of the rights of political prisoners in deplorable conditions in prisons, or expressing opinions on economic and monetary policies, like demanding a halt to widespread corruption, is discouraged. Additionally, expressing opinions on foreign policies like normalization with Israel or participation in the American coalition against Houthis in Yemen in the Red Sea is also discouraged. With the crackdown on the popular movement in the streets and the imprisonment of many who participated in anti-government gatherings and rallies, attempts have shifted to rooting out any dissenting opinion online. Published opinions are used as evidence to fabricate cases against the defendants and issue harsh sentences against them.

A campaign of intimidation for those who violate the self-censorship guillotine

The recent war in Gaza has sparked widespread global outrage over the ongoing genocide – as deemed by UN experts – against Palestinian civilians. The Palestinian civilians face exposure to ethnic cleansing, as characterized by UN experts, amidst the silence of governments regarding the killing of thousands of children and women there. In response, social media activists and civil society members worldwide, including Bahrain, stood in solidarity with the Palestinians. They expressed their condemnation and opinions on various social media platforms. However, the Bahraini government responded punitively and retaliated against this segment of activists. On 19 December 2023, Bahraini authorities arrested a prominent Bahraini activist and opposition leader in the Waad Society, Ebrahim Sharif. This arrest was against the backdrop of a tweet where he openly expressed his opposition to the normalization of his country with Israel and strongly rejected its participation in the American coalition against Houthis in Yemen. He believed the coalition aimed to protect Israeli interests in the Red Sea. Sharif had posted many tweets about his rejection of normalization and his country’s position on the war in Gaza. However, to some extent, he subjected it to self-censorship corresponding with his ideas and did not provide a reason for authorities to summon and arrest him. He was previously arrested in 2016 over a speech in which he was accused of inciting hatred.

After the tweet’s publication, he was summoned to appear before the Criminal Investigations Directorate (CID) and subsequently arrested. Utilizing the Cybercrime Law, the Public Prosecution Office (PPO) decided to detain him for seven days under investigation. He was charged with promoting hatred against the regime and supporting a terrorist group, solely because he supported the Palestinians. Following the arrest, Bahrain’s streets became the scene of a popular movement calling for the release of activist Sharif. 209 figures from various intellectual, cultural, political, and social sectors within Bahraini society signed a petition. They demanded his immediate release, emphasizing that his expressed views represent the majority of the Bahraini people. An electronic campaign has also emerged on social media, condemning Sharif’s arrest merely for expressing his opinion, a right guaranteed by the Constitution, the National Action Charter, and relevant international conventions that Bahrain has signed.

In a similar case, Bahraini authorities arrested Sheikh Mohamed Sanqoor on the background of his sermon on Friday 19 May 2023, in which he discussed his refusal to change educational curricula to the satisfaction of the Israeli side. The CID charged him with delivering speeches containing legal violations, including “insulting the authorities and publicly inciting hatred of a sect of people and contempt for them”. However, the sentiment on the Bahraini streets is in support of the Palestinians, rejecting normalization with Israel, and expressing this through near-daily demonstrations.

In November 2023, the Bahraini historical researcher Jasim AlAbbas was arrested for ten days on the background of publishing a video in which he discusses the historical context for the emergence of Islam and the Shia sect in Bahrain. This topic falls within the framework of his specialization in the field of historical and academic research. A post by the blogger and researcher Jassim AlAbbas about a historical mosque in Bahrain was previously deleted from his Instagram account, and his blog “Years of Al-Juraish”. This deletion occurred after he discussed a former ruler in Bahrain before the arrival of the AlKhalifa family to power. Subsequently, he was arrested and accused of spreading false information against the background of this post.

The activist Ali Muhanna continues to face repeated summonses, the latest being in January 2024, due to his participation in peaceful gatherings and protests, and his open expression of opinions. The total number of summonses from April 2021 to September 2022 reached 24 summonses. Muhanna has been forced to sign multiple pledges related to his participation in protests calling for the release of prisoners of conscience and his social media posts regarding prisoners facing mistreatment.

Bahrain is deemed ‘not a free country’

Using various forms of repression, including harassment through repeated summons, arbitrary detention, and torture, the Government of Bahrain has successfully crushed civil society. According to Amnesty International, “most peaceful critics now feel that the risks of expressing their views have become too high in Bahrain”. These practices have had a detrimental impact on freedoms in the country, as dissenting voices are silenced. Additionally, citizens are apprehensive about criticizing the government or participating in public decisions due to the potential repercussions, fearing a fate similar to that of opposition leaders, human rights defenders, and civil society activists. These figures have experienced unfair trials, politicized charges, and retaliation for their peaceful activities, intensifying the overall climate of fear.

Due to the vague provisions of these laws and the government’s harsh repression of freedom of expression, prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab was sentenced to a total of seven years in prison for posts on Twitter. Despite his release in 2020 under alternative sanctions, he remains under the threat of re-imprisonment, warning that any critical speech on social media could lead to his incarceration again. Consequently, he engages in self-censorship over his online content to some extent to continue his human rights activism.  The blogger, freedom of expression activist, and founder of the Bahrain Online website, Ali AbdulEmam, faced targeting and harassment for his online activities. He was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison after being forced to flee the country.

In the face of the reality of stifling freedoms and the criminalization of free expression, the trend towards self-censorship has become one of the means employed to evade potential retaliatory repercussions. These repercussions may extend across various dimensions, including physical, psychological, professional, and legal. Due to limitations imposed by laws and the Constitution, citizens are adopting caution in what they openly declare in public. They are reviewing their social media posts for fear of exceeding the boundaries set by the government.  However, the line between what is permissible and prohibited remains unclear, prompting individuals to refrain from expressing their views on public matters to avoid authoritarian oversight.

This repression extended into cyberspace as well. Bahrain intensified its crackdown on online activity and social media platforms. It prosecuted several public figures for their posts on social media and authorized the use of spyware programs to monitor the content of activists, targeting them accordingly. An investigation by Citizen Lab revealed that Bahrain used the Pegasus spyware to target three activists who had criticized the Bahraini authorities, highlighting Bahrain’s interest in Israeli NSO technology.

Freedom House scored Bahrain 28/100 on its Freedom of the Next index, marking it as a country that is not free on the internet. This is primarily due to its practice of blocking websites, removing content critical of the government, and imposing criminal penalties and extrajudicial harassment of activists. These actions contribute to high rates of self-censorship driven by the fear of online surveillance and intimidation. From June 2020 to May 2021, at least 58 people faced prosecution, detention, or arrest in connection with their online activities. This includes a woman who was deported from the country and a lawyer whose practicing license was revoked.

This reality underscores the challenge that digital platforms pose to government control. Authorities consistently endeavor to curtail freedoms, extending from traditional media to electronic, alternative, and even social media platforms for citizens. According to Human Rights Watch, “the shift from harsh court sentences to increased summonses for interrogation and short-term detentions has become a prevalent method to intimidate and dissuade individuals from future criticism.” It quoted an expert as saying that self-censorship has been growing. The number of arrests has decreased because people have become conditioned to refrain from speaking out and avoiding anything critical, leading to an increase in self-censorship. As a consequence, citizens refrain from direct criticism of the ruling family, fearing repercussions. This fear extends to criticizing all security services run by members of the ruling family, including the Ministry of Interior. Due to fear of the censor’s scissors, Bahrainis refrain from criticizing ministers and various government agencies associated with the ministers, even if these entities lack decision-making authority.

Even government supporters fear potential misinterpretation of their opinions, as any dissent could lead to accountability. The expanded scope of fear correlates with an increase in summonses by security services, especially after the militarization of social media platforms. While citizens increasingly face summonses and investigations for their online posts, there are no clear statistics on these violations. This is due to the lack of transparency in state security services and because citizens avoid declaring what they are exposed to, fearing repercussions on their lives. In fear that their opinions may disturb the official authorities and subject them to investigation and accountability, many write tweets on social media platforms but delete them before publishing. In contrast, others keep them in unsent tweets.

Self-Censorship among Journalists

Self-censorship is described as the act of a journalist or media professional refraining from addressing controversial or problematic subjects out of concern that it may violate the law or lead to harassment and threats from authorities. This phenomenon is exacerbated by the government’s imposition of stringent restrictions on freedom of expression. The stigmatization of any opinion conflicting with official directives also exacerbates this phenomenon, leading to charges of terrorism, incitement, and posing a threat to security.

Bahrain enacted media freedoms by introducing the Law Regulating the Press, Printing, and Publishing in 2002, which extended its scope to encompass electronic media. However, instead of fostering a free journalistic environment, Bahrain became the instigator of a harsh crackdown on independent journalistic work. This campaign unfolded with the closure of AlWasat newspaper in 2017, marking the end of independent media in Bahrain as it was the last remaining independent newspaper.

The law is primarily employed to impose stringent restrictions on journalists, reporters, and bloggers, encompassing 17 different types of penalties that can lead to fines or imprisonment. As of late 2020, six journalists are behind bars, according to Freedom House, which categorizes Bahrain as a ‘non-free’ country, ranking it among the four worst Arab countries in terms of suppressing freedoms.

The Carnegie Institute asserts that the developments in Bahraini media since February 2011 unequivocally demonstrate the demise of freedom of the press, expression, and professional journalistic practices. Following the constraints imposed on traditional media, Bahrain extended its control to electronic media through Resolution No. 68/2016, an amendment to the Bahraini Press Law of 2002 (issued by Royal Decree No. 47). This ministerial decision mandates that obtaining a license requires providing a list of social media accounts, website addresses, and responsible individuals. Failure to comply may lead to summary prosecution if the content is deemed in violation.

Former Al Wasat newspaper employee Mahmood Al Jaziri was indeed sentenced to 15 years in prison and stripped of his citizenship. Additionally, award-winning photojournalists Ahmed Hamidan and Sayed Ahmed AlMoussawi are still incarcerated, with the latter also being deprived of citizenship. Furthermore, photojournalist Hasan Qambar received a sentence exceeding 100 years in prison for covering peaceful protests.

In its annual Human Rights Report 2022, the US State Department noted that Bahrain continues to impose severe restrictions on freedom of expression and media, employing censorship and the enforcement or threat of criminal defamation laws. The report emphasized that Bahrain restricted freedom of expression and freedom of the press by prosecuting individuals under defamation, slander laws, and national security laws. The law prohibits any speech authorities perceive as challenging public order or morals. This leads individuals to express critical opinions on local political and social issues in private, particularly after those who shared such opinions, whether in traditional or social media, faced public confrontations and potential consequences.

In addition to the presence of dozens of journalists, photographers, bloggers, and activists behind bars for expressing their opinions, authorities employ other punitive measures. These include preventing the renewal of credentials for journalists working with foreign media outlets and obstructing the granting of licenses to media outlets. Consequently, Bahrain’s ranking plummeted to the bottom of the press freedom list, reaching 171 out of 180 countries by 2023. This decline is attributed to the lack of freedom of expression and the diminishing space available for independent press, ultimately transforming the media into a mere propaganda mouthpiece for the royal family and those associated with it.

Bahrain Violates UN Communications and Recommendations

In February, a new session of the Human Rights Council (HRC) will convene, reiterating demands for genuine reforms and an end to the policy of repression and persecution of citizens. However, the effectiveness of these demands hinges on the government’s commitment to implementing reforms, particularly concerning counterterrorism and media freedom laws, given its past evasion of such obligations.

United Nations experts recently issued a communication in 2023, warning of the human rights risks associated with Bahrain’s new counterterrorism law. They expressed concern about the broad definition of terrorism within the legislation, highlighting its potential negative impact on due process, freedom, personal security, the exercise of freedom of opinion and expression, and freedom of peaceful assembly and association. The experts called on the government to review and reconsider certain key aspects of the law to ensure its alignment with Bahrain’s international human rights obligations.

In July 2018, the Human Rights Committee expressed concern about numerous reports of reprisals against Bahraini defenders and journalists, especially when they collaborated with treaty bodies and the Human Rights Council. Subsequently, in November 2022, the Human Rights Council adopted the report from the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on Bahrain’s human rights situation. The report included 245 recommendations, approximately 26 of them addressing freedom of the press and expression of opinion. It’s worth noting that the Kingdom did not endorse all of these recommendations.

In March 2021, the European Union swiftly adopted a draft resolution condemning human rights violations in Bahrain after an overwhelming majority voted in favor. The resolution emphasized the imperative for Bahrain to cease arbitrary harassment, imprisonment, torture, and punishment of individuals exercising their civil and political rights, whether online or offline.

These violations indicate that the government of Bahrain persists in criminalizing any speech critical of the government, violating Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which encompasses freedom of expression and opinion through any means. Additionally, it contravenes Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a treaty ratified by Bahrain. In light of these violations, Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) asserts the right guaranteed to all citizens for freedom of opinion and expression. ADHRB calls on the government of Bahrain to adhere to the international laws and treaties it has ratified, urging an end to summonses and arrests on the grounds of expressing opinion, and demanding a halt to persecution, espionage on activists and opponents, and reprisals against them.

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