Website administrators face the same libel laws that apply to print journalists, and they are held jointly responsible for all content posted on their sites or chat rooms. In the website of the Democratic National Work Society was blocked for the second time after it published an article about the so-called Al-Bandar report, which described an alleged antiShiite conspiracy within the Sunni-led government. The authorities required the removal of the article as a condition for lifting the block, but the society rejected the demand and the case went to court.20 In February 2009, the MOI said it had lifted blocks on multiple websites after they removed the banned content.21 Many webmasters have added rules to their online forums that prohibit posts criticizing the ruling family, and they have begun banning users who attempt to post such comments to avoid having their sites blocked.
In practice, many websites run by national or international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are inaccessible. For example, the websites of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) and the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) have been blocked. The MOI has also issued orders to ban material about certain cases that could implicate members of the royal family, such as the alleged anti-Shiite conspiracy and a Press and Publications Law of 2002 of the Kingdom of Bahrain (No.47 of 2002). A copy can be found at:
Reporters Without Borders, “Countries Under Surveillance: Bahrain.” Reporters Without Borders, “Authorities Step Up Offensive Against Journalists and Websites,” news release, May 14, 2009, http://en.rsf.org/spip.phppage=article&id_article=33042.
Frederik Richter, “Bahrain Web Crackdown Triggers Calls for Reform,” Reuters, February 9, 2009, http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE5183Y320090209.
OpenNet Initiative, “Country Profile: Bahrain,” August 06, 2009, http://opennet.net/research/profiles/bahrain#footnote34_6d3d5g9.
BAHRAIN FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net case involving alleged corruption by a government minister.22 Even Google Earth was briefly rendered inaccessible so that Bahraini citizens could not examine the estates of the royal family;23 it was unblocked after concerted public and media pressure. Blocking decisions and policies are not transparent, and users do not always get a block message, especially when they try to access banned political websites. For some blocked sites, DNS tampering is used, and users simply receive error messages such as “The page cannot be displayed.”24 Webmasters do not receive notifications that their sites have been banned.
Apart from websites, the government routinely blocks blogs and individual pages on social-networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. For example, several Bahraini blogs were blocked in 2009, including those maintained by human rights activists Abduljalil Alsingace (Alsingace.katib.org) and women’s rights activist Ghada Jamsheer (Bahrain-eve.blogspot.com). In January 2010, authorities blocked access to a Twitter page called “Free Bahrain.” It was operated by a Bahrain resident who posted links and news on the human rights situation in the country.25 The same woman’s personal channel on the YouTube video-sharing site, which mostly contained critical footage, was also blocked.Moreover, in June 2010, the authorities blocked a popular blog called Sanawat al-Jareesh, which provided an unofficial account of Bahrain’s history.27 And most recently, amidst the crackdown in advance of the November election, the personal website and the Facebook page of an opposition activist Abdul Wahb Hussain were also blocked.
Although technically the law does allow affected individuals to appeal a block within 15 days, no such case has yet been adjudicated even several years after the blocking action in question. For example, a legal challenge mounted by the Waad political group has languished in the courts, and the blocking order against its website remains in place. The website is now accessible due to pressure exerted on the authorities, but the block could be reinstated arbitrarily.Since the enactment of the 2002 Telecommunications Law, which assigns penalties for illicit use of the internet, users have adopted a culture of self-censorship. Bahraini bloggers, numbering close to 200, usually prefer to remain anonymous, and security personnel do not hesitate to pursue or harass “irritating” journalists and bloggers.29 Users Bahrain Center for Human Rights, “Authorities Reinforce Sweeping Media Ban, Internet Censorship on Controversial Report,” news release, November 28, 2007, http://bahrainrights.hopto.org/en/node/1635;
Bahrain Center for Human Rights, “Dealing in Double Standards Whilst Fighting Corruption, and Violating Freedom of Opinion and Expression,” news release, April 18, 2010, http://bahrainrights.hopto.org/en/node/3075.
Reporters Without Borders, “Countries Under Surveillance: Bahrain.” OpenNet Initiative, “Country Profile: Bahrain.” Bahrain Center for Human Rights, “Authorities Block Human Rights Page on Twitter Website,” news release, January 20, 2010, http://bahrainrights.hopto.org/en/node/3023.
“Minister Blocks YouTube Channel,” IFEX, January 22, 2010, http://www.ifex.org/bahrain/2010/01/22/youtube_channel_blocked/.
More information can be found on the Alwasat, website, http://www.alwasatnews.com/2609/news/read/326019/1.html.
Reporters Without Borders, “Countries Under Surveillance: Bahrain.” BAHRAIN FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net tend to avoid certain subjects, including criticism of the ruling family and government practices; the Al-Bandar report, which is referred to as the “xx-report,” and human rights issues.
Bahrain’s online community is small but dynamic. As of January 2008, there were over 535 websites based in Bahrain. In addition to the 200 blogs, they included 111 public forums and several dozen governmental sites.30 The use of proxy services, dynamic internet protocol (IP) addresses, and virtual private network (VPN) applications allow the majority of users in Bahrain to access blocked websites, although many less savvy users are not as successful. In fact, the government regularly blocks access to proxy sites and tools that enable circumvention of online filters and censors, including applications that allow browsing of other websites, such as Google page translation, Google cached pages, and online mobile emulators, requiring users to be consistently creative and adapt.
Bahrainis use the internet to debate sensitive issues and to exchange content that is not available in the traditional media. The most popular platform is the banned Bahrainonline.org—the largest independent news forum with over 50,000 members— where coverage of regular street protests is posted along with oppositionist articles.
Multiple independent online news sites have emerged in the last few years, but many have had to close due to constant harassment by the authorities. For example, the sites Alsaheefa.net and Awaal.net were closed after three journalists were charged with inciting hatred of the government, insulting the regime, and fostering sectarianism in 2008.31 Tools like Twitter, the social-networking site Facebook, YouTube, and mobile-phone text messages have been well utilized by Bahraini individuals and human rights organizations such as the Bahrain Center for Human Rights to organize protests and promote civil rights.These tools have started to play even more significant role following the pre-election crackdown in 2010; after many forums and critical websites were blocked, many Bahrainis turned to Twitter and Facebook to voice their opinions and campaign against the government actions. Bahrain Center for Human Rights, “Internet Censorship Denies Citizens Access to Popular Public Forums, News, Alternative Information,” IFEX, January 3, 2008, http://www.ifex.org/bahrain/2008/01/03/internet_censorship_denies_citizens/.
Bahrain Center for Human Rights, “Three Writers for Banned Internet Site Convicted of Criminal Defamation, Fined,” news release, October 23, 2007, http://bahrainrights.hopto.org/en/node/1500; Reporters Without Borders, “Press Law Amendments Hailed, but Journalists Still Face Jail and Websites Risk Closure,” news release, July 03, 2008, http://en.rsf.org/bahrain-press-law-amendments-hailed-but-03-07-2008,27741.html.
IFEX, “Case Study: BCHR combats censorship with creativity, using film, photography and e-advocacy”, http://www.ifex.org/campaigns/e-advocacy/index7.php, accessed February 15, 2011.
Frederik Richter, "Lively Bahrain social media face government pressure," Reuters, October 21, 2010, http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE69K2OG20101021.
BAHRAIN FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net VIOLATIONS OF USER RIGHTS Although freedom of expression is enshrined in the constitution, the guarantees are qualified by the phrase “under the rules and conditions laid down by law,” which essentially negates them.34 Similarly, the 2002 press law promises free access to information, but “without prejudice to the requirements of national security and defending the homeland.” Bahraini journalists have argued that these loosely worded clauses allow for arbitrary interpretation.There is no law that guarantees users’ privacy. A proposed cybercrimes law has been under consideration since 2005.Online journalists and others face prison terms of up to five years for violations of the 2002 Press and Publications Law (see “Limits on Content”).37 In addition, the Telecommunications Law contains penalties for illicit practices including the transmission of messages that are offensive to public policy or morals.38 This vague phrase has been used by the government to question and prosecute several bloggers and journalists, including moderators of Bahrainonline.org who were arrested after a UN report on human rights in Bahrain was published on their forums; they were released due to public pressure, but their case has remained open since 2005 and they can be taken back to court at any time.Users can be prosecuted for libeling officials, as in the case of Mahmood al-Yousif, who was accused of libeling Bahrain’s agriculture minister after he found fault with a statement made by the minister.40 In May 2009, Hasan Salman was arrested and accused of publishing what authorities claimed were confidential names of employees of the national security apparatus. He was tried under the penal code and sentenced to three years in jail.In April 2010, as previously noted, the authorities threatened to punish individuals and newspapers responsible for sending news bulletins through Blackberry text messages Constitution of the Kingdom of Bahrain, available at http://www.shura.bh/en/InformationCenter/Pages/Documents.aspx.
“Bahrain,” in Media Sustainability Index 2008 (Washington, DC: IREX, 2009), http://irex.org/programs/MSI_MENA/2008/MSIMENA_bahrain.asp.
“New law to protect from cyber crime is presented to the House of Representatives,” [in Arabic] Alayam, April 28, 2010, http://www.alayam.com/Articles.aspxaid=17707.
Committee to Protect Journalists, “Bahrain,” in Attacks on the Press 2009 (New York: Committee to Protect Journalists, February 2010), http://www.cpj.org/2010/02/attacks-on-the-press-2009-bahrain.php.
Telecommunications Law of the Kingdom of Bahrain.
Luke Schleusener, “From Blog to Street: The Bahrain Public Sphere in Transition,” Arab Media and Society no. 1 (Spring 2007), http://www.arabmediasociety.com/article=15.
Mahmood Nasser al-Yousif, “Bahraini Blogger: Freedom of Speech Stifled,” Mahmood’s Den (blog), November 26, 2007, http://mahmood.tv/about/in-the-news/bahraini-blogger-freedom-of-speech-stifled/.
“Bahrain: Citizen Sentenced to Three Years in Prison,” Free Hasan Salman, September 18, 2009, http://freehasan.noip.org/p=310.
BAHRAIN FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net without a government license.42 One member of parliament is on record as recommending that transgressors be hanged.Two bloggers were arrested amidst security crackdown against activists and dissidents in the period leading to the 2010 elections. In August 2010, Abduljalil Alsingace—a blogger, academic, and a leading figure in the Haq opposition group—was arrested when returning from London, where he participated in a seminar on the worsening human rights situation in Bahrain. Al-Singace’s website, on which he had criticized the systematic use of torture and discrimination against the Shiites, was closed down by the authorities in February 2009. In September 2010, Ali Abdulemam, an online activist and the founder of Bahrainonline.org, was also arrested,44 this time for allegedly disseminating false information on the forum. During their court hearing in October, both Alsingace and Abdulemam said that they had experienced severe beatings on the head, long standing hours, deprivation of sleep, and threats of rape. They also complained of being denied access to their families and lawyers and being kept in solitary confinement. In 2007, the MOI ordered the registration of all websites hosted in the country or abroad that featured information about the kingdom. This decision met with significant opposition from a large number of website owners, who tacitly decided not to register their sites. The regime then reversed its position, and registration became optional.46 The TRA also requires users to obtain licenses to use wireless fidelity (WiFi) and worldwide interoperability for microwave access (WiMax) connections.47 The government does not allow the sale and use of prepaid mobile-phone chips without registration.