Bahrain clamps down on citizen media

Five journalists and photographers in the Gulf state were arrested ahead protests on Wednesday, activists said.

bahrain protest
Inspired by Egypt's "Tamarod" movement, pro-democracy activists in Bahrain called for protests on August 14 [AP]

On Wednesday, an estimated 60 protests broke out across Bahrain despite pre-emptive measures such as banning demonstrations in the country’s capital, roadblocks, checkpoints and barbed-wire barriers.

The protests, held on the anniversary of the Gulf country’s independence from the UK, were launched by a group called “Tamarod” or “Rebel”, inspired by Egypt’s youth-led movement that helped to topple Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in July. The group demands more freedoms in Bahrain, whose population is mostly Shia but whose monarchy and power structure is Sunni.

The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) recorded 19 arrests on Wednesday, according to Maryam al-Khawaja, BCHR’s acting president.

However, a number of related arrests occurred before the August 14 protests. Since unrest began in Bahrain in 2011, hundreds of medical staff, human rights advocates, protesters and journalists have been targeted by authorities and imprisoned.

But in recent weeks, the crackdown on journalists appears to have accelerated. Five journalists, bloggers, and photographers have been arrested in Bahrain since the end of July, according to human rights groups. Said Yousif, head of monitoring at the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, told Al Jazeera he believes the arrest of bloggers and photographers is a reaction to Tamarod’s protests.

Everyone now in Bahrain has become a journalist... You cannot just arrest someone and think no one else will take photos.

by - Said Yousif, head of monitoring at Bahrain Center for Human Rights

Journalist arrests

A week ago, Bahraini photographer Ahmed al-Fardan was arrested outside a cafe near his home by two plainclothes policemen. The police, who told him they needed to “speak with him for five minutes”, took him to a car where he said he was beaten. One policeman punched him while the other choked him, he said.

Al-Fardan, who worked for Demotix and Sipa press agencies, was told by the policemen that he could avoid arrest if he provided information about opposition rallies and other journalists in this small, politically divided Gulf country.

“I was very afraid at that time, because they showed me a pistol and said ‘we can reach you anywhere – we can raid your house. I can come to you anytime, I know your number, I know your home, I can arrest anyone from your family,'” said al-Fardan. 

Al-Fardan’s arrest was preceded by that of Mohamed Hassan, a well-known Bahraini blogger and a fixer for foreign media, who said he was arrested at around 3am on July 31 after masked men raided his home. His whereabouts and the charges against him were not known for three days.

Human rights activists believe Hassan was targeted for publically voicing his support for democracy in Bahrain. He was arrested three times in 2012 for content on his blog and assisting foreign journalists to report on protests.

However, Salman al-Jalahma, media attache for the Bahrain Information Authority, told Al Jazeera in an email that “the government vehemently refutes any allegations of targeted arrests”. In the past, government sources have criticised some media outlets for contributing to a campaign of insecurity and instability in the country.

According to BCHR, Hassan was interrogated at the Public Prosecution Office on August 3 concerning ” his online activities, participation in seminars and forums outside Bahrain, and his contacts with media reporters who visit Bahrain”. 

Hassan claims that before his interrogation, he was beaten at the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). His lawyer Abdul-Aziz Mosa, informed BCHR that “he was able to see marks of beatings on Hassan’s arms”. Mosa was arrested for tweeting about Hassan’s bruises on August 7. In a statement on Twitter, Bahrain’s public prosecution announced that Mosa was imprisoned for further investigation for the “publication of the names accused without permission”.

The government has a duty to hold anyone accountable for defying the laws and regulations of the country, irrespective of profession.

by Salman al-Jalahma, media attache for the Bahrain Information Authority

Hussain Hubail, a Bahraini photojournalist, was arrested at the Manama airport on the same night as Hassan. Hubail’s lawyer, Ali al-Asfoor, told BCHR that he was interrogated about his work as a photojournalist and use of Twitter accounts linked to the August 14 protests. Hubail also reported to his lawyer that he was tortured at the CID. 

Both Hassan and Hubail are being held in prison pending a 45-day investigation. Amnesty International reported that they were being charged for “inciting hatred against the regime”, “calling for illegal gatherings”, “inciting people to ignore the law” and “being a member of the 14 February media group”.

And Qassim Zain Aldeen, a freelance cameraman, was arrested at his home on August 2.

Said Yousif told Al Jazeera that in addition to the citizen journalist arrests, at least seven journalists are in hiding after their homes were raided following the announcement of Tamarod Bahrain on July 5. 

International condemnation

The arrests followed a session of Bahrain’s National Assembly that took place on July 28, in which 22 recommendations were drafted and ordered to be implemented by Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. One recommendation, put into effect on August 7, bans sit-ins, rallies and gatherings in Manama, the capital. Another calls on the “media to shed light on the dangers of terrorism and its negative impacts on national stability and economy”.

On August 6, the United Nations’ human rights office expressed its concern about “Bahrain’s toughened anti-terrorism laws” and recommendations that call for “revoking the citizenship of anyone convicted of terrorism charges”.

Amnesty International called for Bahrain to end its crackdown on peaceful demonstrations, while also condemning the arrests of “journalists, photographers, bloggers and others active on social media networks in recent days” as a way to silence critics. 

“The authorities in the Gulf are nervous about the sort of forum which the internet … provides for activists,” said Nicholas McGeehan, a Gulf researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It’s a free space that Gulf rulers are not comfortable with. They don’t know how to deal with it, and their response has been to resort to extreme and repressive measures – and it’s probably most evident in Bahrain.”

Despite recent arrests, Bahrain’s citizen journalists and activists vow to continue covering the unrest in their country. Police reportedly fired tear gas and birdshot at demonstrators on Wednesday, who promptly posted photos to Instagram and Twitter of the violence.

“Everyone now in Bahrain has become a journalist,” said Yousif. “You cannot just arrest someone and think no one else will take photos. It’s a culture. If you arrest one journalist, it does not mean at all that no one will take photos.” 

Follow Amira on Twitter: @AmiraAsad

Source: Al Jazeera