Back in October Bahrain announced that it would be opening a brand new media city, complete with new buildings, technological stuff, and an attractive investment climate. The purpose, ‘to entice companies operating in the media arena‘. Like middle-aged men who buy expensive sport cars, one can’t help thinking that this move was one of overcompensation – a poor attempt to mask inadequacies through a grandiose and expensive gesture. Indeed, the idea of building a ‘media city’ in a country deemed by Reporters Without Borders to be an ‘enemy of the internet’ is so ironic that it’s almost self-satirizing. A bit like the fake Ed Husain account, where does reality end and the joke begin?
What this media city represents is an attempt to deflect criticisms of Bahrain’s media industry through marketing Bahrain as a beacon of media modernity. The reality of course is much different, for despite these technological developments, Bahrain’s media industry seems to be regressing. This is highlighted by the appointment of Sameera Rajab as Minister of State for Information Affairs, a move that illustrates the regime’s habit of rewarding people for loyalty instead of competence. The fact that the post was created especially for Sameera Rajab is particularly galling, not least because the title has no correlation to the reality of what Sameera does. As the Prime Minister stated, (ok the parody account of the Prime Minister), ‘Miss Information’ is perhaps a more appropriate name.
Sameera Rajab is perhaps most famous for her role in organising a 3 day pan-Arab nationalist conference in Manama, one which prompted the US ambassador Monroe to voice his concerns about Rajab’s ‘sectarian agenda’. In addition to this, Sameera was a chief proponent of Bahrain’s twelve point flag conspiracy, a rumour that begin last year in which some people claimed that protesters were waving a Bahraini flag with twelve points on. The twelve points are meant to symbolise the twelve Shia Imams, and therefore constitute irrefutable evidence that the protesters wished to convert Bahrain into a Shia theocracy. In actual fact, no pictures of any twelve point flags emerged. However, that didn’t stop Bahrain’s new Minister of State for Information Affairs going on Al-Jazeera and holding up a photo of a Bahraini flag with 1o points on. That’s right, a photo of a 10 point flag to prove the 12 point flag conspiracy. So there you have it, being really sectarian makes you bad at maths. On a side note, this conspiracy theory found its way into the Arabic version of the BICI report – yet another reason to question about what nefarious forces were able to influence the outcomes of that investigation.
Despite Sameera’ questionable numerical skills and raging sectarianism, what else can she offer the Bahraini regime? Well, her company already has a contract for 60,000BD (approx $160 000) from the government to provide ‘media consultancy services to the Information Affairs Authority’ – so presumably she knows what she’s doing? I’m not quite sure why a company called the Bahrain Centre for Oriental Studies is providing media consultancy services, though one would hope that the fusion of Oriental knowledge with media savvy would lead to a better, more inclusive national media.
Given her reputation though, it seems unlikely that she is going to be doing much to help reform Bahrain’s heavily controlled state media – something that was recommended in the BICI report, and something that would be an important gesture of good faith in the overall reform process. On the contrary, Bahrain’s media seems to have done little in the way of reform. Last year they launched a thinly veiled attack on free speech by announcing tough new internet laws. According to the GDN, these laws would prosecute
Those who used the Internet … for terrorism or to damage the reputation of others could get up to three years in jail or a fine of up to BD100,000, or both. If the offender was successful, the jail sentence would be up to five years and the fine up to BD200,000.
The GDN also announced in February 2o12 that insulting the King, the country’s flag, or the country’s emblem would be punishable with up to 5 years in prison or a BD10,000. I presume that applies to insulting the King on social media?
Perhaps the most irritating thing about all of this is that I was at Chatham House a few days ago discussing the very need to implement meaningful media reforms, including demonstrating a commitment to punishing those using media to promote sectarianism. I also emphasized the need to prosecute @7areghum – a Twitter account so notorious that it was even mentioned in the BICI report. The report stated
The Harghum Twitter account targeted anti-government protesters and even disclosed their whereabouts and personal details. Harghum openly harassed, threatened and defamed certain individuals, and in some cases placed them in immediate danger. The Commission considers such harassment to be a violation of a person’s right to privacy while also amounting to hate speech and incitement to violence
The report also clearly states that @7areghum broke both national and international law
The GoB uses firewalls to block certain social media and other websites. However, the GoB has not permanently shut down Twitter feeds such as Harghum even though they produced material that international law requires to be prohibited and which is in fact prohibited under Bahrain law.
However, nothing has been done. There has also been no condemnation from any senior government officials. As far as I know, no investigation has been carried out, nor has the Bahrain government asked the US to subpoena Twitter to release information about the account. Given Bahrain’s small size, I am also pretty certain a thorough investigation would reveal who runs the account. Surely Bahrain’s new Minister of State for Information Affairs should address this issue? Or surely Khalid Al Khalifa, a prominent member of the Twitter community should condemn it. He was, afterall, vociferous in his condemnaton of the Al Jazeera documentary ‘Shouting in the Dark’. So much so that he called for people to vote against it in an online poll for the UK Bafta Award.
Indeed, the regime’s silence on the @7areghum issue points to a selectivity in how they define cyber crimes. Today, the Bahrain News Agency even announced that Nabeel Rajab was being investigated for incidents of ‘cyber incitement’. The BNA stated:
The Public Prosecution filed a case against the defendant after compiling compelling evidence of his involvement in inciting illegal rallies and marches online on social networking websites. //Police investigation has also revealed that the defendant’s cyber incitement proved detrimental as they fuelled rioting, road blocking, arsons, acts of sabotage targeting public and private properties, in addition to the use of Molotov cocktail incendiary bombs.//The inquiry has also revealed compelling evidence on the defendant’s role in instigating, online, acts targeting policemen whilst on duty, leaving some of them injured. //The Interior Ministry had filed a complaint with the Public Prosecution against the accused who posted defamatory and humiliating depictions of the public security forces.
‘Cyber crime’ is not new to Nabeel Rajab, and last year the regime accused him of tweeting fabricated photos of torture victim Ali Isa Saqer. This selective victimisation of those who oppose the state is further emphasised by the regime’s reluctance to do anything about accounts like @Manamepress_en, who recently broadcast a video showing the faces of ‘Al Wefaq militias and terrorists’. The video concludes by stating:
Those who recognise the people in the video should report them to the security apparatus
It goes without saying that such behaviour could be considered ‘cyber-incitmenet’. It also wouldn’t be too hard to find out who is behind the Manama Press account. After all, they were the ones who interviewed the Al-Arabiya camera man who was allegedly harassed by youth – despite police protection. So all the police need to do is phone up Sheikh AlDeen Abdulla Ahmed of Al-Arabiya and ask who interviewed him.
Media Reforms Insincere
The arrest of Nabeel Rajab’s for cyber offences comes after the government announced that Bahrain would be undertaking certain initiatives to reform its media. These initiatives include:
the drafting of modern legislation for the Press, audiovisual media and electronic publishing, which includes the establishment of a Supreme Council for the Media – an independent watchdog that will oversee media content, express opinion on draft laws, accept complaints and ensure the media adheres to media laws and ethics. //Shaikh Fawaz revealed a centre had been contracted to prepare an ethics charter for audiovisual media, following the launch of a similar charter for the Press in January
Whether or not these reforms will be effective remains to be seen, though given everything outlined in this blog I am very doubtful.
Without showing a commitment (as opposed to just rhetoric) to media reform, the regime are simply highlighting their insincerity in tackling issues such as sectarianism. Perhaps Bahrain need to take a leaf out of Kuwait’s book, and actual define more strictly what might constitute ‘inciting sectarianism’ on social media.Opening up the media would also lessen the need for people to rely on foreign channels like Al-Manar and Press TV for news about Bahrain. The fact people have to watch such channels also fuels the accusation that all opposition are foreign agents of Iran/Hezbollah/US/’ The Jew’. Sadly, however, the regime’s reliance on a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy suggests that anti-sectarian laws will not be enforced. The appointment of Baathisht Sameera Rajab as Minister of State for Information Affairs seems to confirm this. Indeed, talk of ‘ending the sectarian divide’ is meaningless without reform of the state’s communication apparatus.
Finally, all the rhetoric of media cities and technological modernisation serves to highlight the importance of tools, as opposed to values or principles. Indeed, all this modernisation really means is that Bahrain will be better able to broadcast a selective intepretation of reality to more and more people around the world. Unfortunately, it is this ‘selective interpretation of reality’ that so many people are eager to define as ‘truth’. Yet as we are all probably aware, we have seen a multiplicity of truths emerge over the past year. People who are so eager to use the term truth, are often those who are eager to dispel an opposing truth. Thus using the word truth simply highlights its own contentious semantics, drawing more attention to the speaker’s ideology than reality itself. In many ways, truth is simply a word used to describe a specific narrative serving a particular ideological function. The announcement of a ‘media city’ is nothing to excited about. On the contrary, it represents how wealth and power gives those with wealth and power the ability to project their version of reality to a wider audience. This media city is merely a ‘ truth centre’, an Orwellian institution whose function serves not to inform, but to marginalize, deflect, deceive, dominate and censor.