The Bahraini government seems to understand freedom of expression a bit like Lance Armstrong understands clean cycling. Like Lance, it prefers to play by its own rules and attack critics rather than accept normal standards. The Kingdom has invented a curious definition of free expression where criticizing members of the ruling family on Twitter can land you in court. The Bahraini regime's credibility is as damaged as that of world cycling -- the government needs to implement drastic measures that go beyond public relations to restore international trust.
Bahrainis can't say they weren't warned. On September 9, Bahrain's Ministry of the Interior announced it would "soon tackle crimes related to defamation and abuse on social media networks." A senior official in the ministry noted that "some people were using the communication technology to abuse national and public figures through the Internet," and that the ministry "had received many complaints from public figures affected by such acts who have demanded action against this."
So it was no surprise when four men in their 20s appeared in court earlier this month on charges that they defamed Bahraini King Hamad on Twitter. One of the their lawyers, Fatima Al Mutawa, told Human Rights First that her client was questioned about quotes from the Qur'an he had tweeted. One quote was about punishing criminals and another tweet was about the corruption of Arab leaders. "He said he never used curse words in his tweets," she said. His Twitter account has now been closed.
This seems a curious way for the Bahraini government to abide by last month's U.N. Human Rights Council recommendation that the Kingdom improve its record on freedom of expression. If anything, it seems to be pedaling backwards.
In May, prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab was detained for three
weeks after criticizing the Interior Ministry in a tweet. He was also fined $750.
His appeal in that case is slated for consideration at the end of November.
Rajab was also detained in June on separate charges stemming from his tweet
that Bahrain's prime minister (the king's uncle) should step down. For that
offense, Rajab was sentenced to three months in prison, a term he had nearly
completed when a Bahraini court finally acquitted him on appeal.
Anyone who follows the #Bahrain hashtag on Twitter will be familiar with the constant stream of aggressive accusations from splenetic trolls, and many of us following the situation in the Kingdom are regularly subjected to personal abuse. But by targeting and intimidating users of Twitter, the government is smothering the chance for people to peacefully oppose the ruling family. Since the traditional media is largely closed to government critics and street protests are often met with excessive police force, Twitter is one of the few places where people are still able to voice peaceful dissent. Shutting off this safety valve is likely to backfire, increasing frustration with the government and inviting more ridicule of the royals.
As New York Times journalist Nick Kristof said last week, when he tweeted to 1.3 million followers that "Our ally #Bahrain arrested 4 men for defaming the king on Twitter, thus making the king look even sillier."
The Bahraini Ministry of the Interior says that its social media crackdown is not a curtailment of freedom of speech. King Hamad insists that "people are not arrested because they express their views, we only have criminals." Last month, Bahrain Ambassador to the U.S. Huda Nonoo claimed that "Bahrain expanded freedom of expression in response to the recommendations of the Bahrain Commission of Inquiry ... As a result, His Majesty the King approved changes to Bahrain's constitution bolstering this fundamental right." It's hard to tell how these promises will affect the four men officially charged with the "crime of insulting his majesty the king on their personal accounts on Twitter. " Perhaps we'll get an answer to that when the men are back in court on October 31.
Brian Dooley is Director of the Human Rights Defender Program at Human Rights First. You can follow Brian Dooley on twitter @dooley_dooley