3 weeks ago, a British PR and Strategic Communication firm called Dragon Associates forced the Guardian to take down an article from their Comment is Free section. Today the Guardian have put it back up. The article in question stated that the head of security at the BIC (Bahrain International Circuit) had been involved in torturing employees on the racetrack premises. Dragon Associates claimed that the article contained ‘considerable inaccuracies’. Despite this, the article has gone back up exactly the same as before, albeit with a footnote tacked on at the end. This footnote reads
In its letter of complaint, the BIC makes the following points: while the BIC accepts that in April 2012 the police took some of its employees to the police station for interrogation, it denies the allegation that its security staff were involved in any repressive activities, or that its staff tortured, beat or mistreated BIC employees on BIC premises. The BIC says that if any of its employees were beaten or otherwise badly treated by BIC security staff – which it denies – it would have been without BIC’s knowledge, instructions or orders.
It is interesting to note that the Guardian were so quick to take down a piece that ended going back up unchanged. John Lubbock, the article’s co-author, also informed me that the piece was taken down prior to the Guardian actually receiving a formal complaint. Despite all these interesting oddities, Dragon Associates were obviously successful in stalling the incendiary article until Bahrain had more or less secured the hosting of the Grand Prix (tickets go on sale today). Furthermore, they also managed to get a footnote added to the article, which seems a bit unusual on ‘Comment is Free’. The footnote is also odd because it basically says that while the BIC deny that its security were involved in the mistreatment, it accepts that it could have happened without their knowledge. Essentially, this added paragraph does nothing to disprove the veracity of the preceding article, it merely serves to add an element of doubt to the story. Not quite sure how Dragon Associates managed to pull this off, maybe they used ‘Right of Reply’. All I know is, when these guys breathe fire, people get scared.
Tear Gas and Tyre Burning
For those who don’t see failure to reform as a good enough reason to not host the Formula One, the announcement that tickets would go on sale today was welcome. Unfortunately, however, the reporting of ‘good news’ in Bahrain is often accompanied by a concerted effort to marginalise any bad news. Indeed, I spent my morning being trolled for tweeting an article in Al-Wasat (a Bahrain newspaper) about how tear gas was harming domestic birds. This trolling included the suggestion that I carry out my own independent experiment into the potential long-term impact of tear gas on domestic avian species before tweeting the article. I suppose that’s not an unreasonable suggestion. I mean I could theoretically take a degree in biology, gain work experience in a laboratory, apply for funding to do the aforementioned project, and then, 6 years down the line, consider tweeting the Al-Wasat article again?
On a serious note, the only logical reason I can think for being trolled for tweeting that article is because I was translating ‘bad news’ and taking it to a larger audience, thus running the risk of isolating the very fickle demographic of ’ornithological experts who also happen to love Formula One’. Or maybe I was trolled because anyone who believes tear gas is potentially lethal is an idiot! Wait, I’ve got it, it must because tear gas is actually good for us, you know, just like smoking was! People should be grateful for tear gas. Afterall, it is only used out of ‘care and respect for freedom of expression‘. Considering the potential health benefits of tear gas, which can include pulmonary edema and chemical pneumonitis, I’m surprised the company supplying Bahrain with this new tear gas chooses to remain anonymous! Surely they would want the whole world to know?!
The standard response to the mere suggestion that tear gas is harmful is usually met with the argument that ‘opposition rioters/AlWefaq thugs’ are damaging the environment when they burn tyres. Obviously this argument highlights the benevolence of the Bahrain security forces, who choose to use sweetly scented tear gas on protesters rather than rolling hundreds of flaming tyres down the street to disperse them. Afterall, let’s not forget that the police are the real victims here, and that even their tear gas is no match for the tear gas used by the protesters. Forgive the rant, I just wanted to illustrate how certain people attempt to reinforce the hegemonic discourse through intimidation, attacks on credibility, personal attacks, blame-shifting, or through creating smoke and mirrors.
Social Media Awards
Other attempts to dominate the informational control continuum have been equally crude, such as the Information Affairs Authority decision to give out Social Media Awards a week before the anniversary of February 14th. This ceremony pre-empted the Ministry of the Interior’s warning a week later, which read
Very much aware that social media poses a challenge to the regime’s ability to control its image, the Social Media Awards appeared to be an attempt to confer legitimacy and credibility on certain news sources on Twitter and Facebook. So in case you were wondering who those official sources were, those who won awards included the Foreign Minister, the Ministry of the Interior, two very pro-government newspapers (Al-Ayam and Al-Watan), the Bahrain News Agency (itself part of the IAA). There was even an award for ‘most-distinguished-expat‘, which was awarded to someone who thinks it’s ok to call people brainless whilst also saying saying that Nabeel Rajab sent thugs to cut off an Englishman’s fingers. Personally, I was disappointed to see that Bahrain’s most distinguished expat never showed up to the ceremony, mainly because it would do a lot to mitigate people’s concerns about the proliferation of numerous pro-government sock puppet accounts.
The BBC has also been affected by the insidious influence of PR of late. Not only have they produced two articles that appear to whitewash abuses in Bahrain, but they have also had to apologize after airing a number of documentaries on Malaysia and Egypt that were actually produced by companies who received millions of dollars from those governments to do strategic political communication. On a similar note, the BBC World Service show ‘World Have Your Say’ broadcast a show last week that concerned the media war in Bahrain. Among the topics discussed was the government PR machine, though unbeknownst to the BBC, one of the guests on the show is the managing director of a company who receives money from the government to do PR. Another guest on the show was also suggested to the BBC by a PR company connected to the royal family, though the BBC were quick to emphasise that she was not representing the royal family. Interestingly, this show was aired six hours after ‘ World Have Your Say’ hosted another show on Bahrain, one that contained some guests that were very critical of the regime. People in Bahrain reported that the show cut out, and the next day this was blamed on a ‘router failure at one of the third parties that provides streaming services to the BBC over the weekend’. Perhaps a coincidence, perhaps an attempt to reassert control over the ‘message’?
So as you can see, the information war in Bahrain is insidious, inexorable and unpleasant. The snapshot provided in the blog is just one aspect of a broader trend – the attempt control information and ’media content through propaganda, psychological operations, information intervention, and strategic public diplomacy.’ (Bakir, 2011) For this reason, it is imperative that we fight back, lest we allow the public sphere to be completely distorted by wealth and power.