Information community on the internet faces the danger of disappearance due to the brutal crackdown on freedom of expression

Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

17th May 2011

Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) expresses its deep concern regarding the continuous crackdown on the freedom of individuals to express their views and the suppression of Bahraini authorities to freedom of expression in various ways. This report focuses on the repression of freedom of expression through the web space that targeted activists and bloggers on the internet through killing threats and detention leading to a state of extreme self-censorship. Many websites that discuss the local affairs and political events, including discussion forums and blogging pages of Bahraini activists, have been blocked or closed by authorities in Bahrain. The diversity of electronic contents on the web is compromised as more bloggers are disappearing everyday along with the closure of their websites and pages.

Since the public protests last February –started after calls spread through Facebook (1)-, Bahraini activists and bloggers – like others worldwide- made use of the readily available cyberspace and social networking sites such as forums, blogs, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to broadcast what’s happening in Bahrain(2), spread the details of public protests and document it with articles, pictures and videos. They also started to share their thoughts and opinions about what’s happening on these sites; which was their only channel to express their opinions and spread the news to the world as the official media refrained from presenting any anti-government view and only broadcasted the news of protests after distortion (3) and adapting it to serve the government objectives, while the other media channels kept silence. (4)

Restrictions on internet activity since the beginning of public protests:

From the beginning, the authorities feared the success of activist on the internet to raise the public and therefore they blocked the pages that called for demonstrations.(5) After the protests started, the authorities slowed down the internet speed to prevent activists from broadcasting what happening, as that meant obstructing the upload of videos, live broadcast of demonstration and surfing the net. It also blocked bambuser.com website, which allow members to exchange videos taken by mobile phones directly. Pages from YouTube containing videos of the demonstrations were also blocked.(6) And while the government used American-made weapons to crackdown protesters in the street, American programs were also used to block the websites.(7) According to Arbor Networks(8)-an American company for information security- internet trafficking from and to Bahrain was reduced by 20% after the first crackdown on the Pearl Roundabout on the 17th Feb, which prove that the authorities have tightened their control on the internet in response to the growing unrest.

Thugs of the social network pages(9):

Besides filling the social networks (especially Twitter) with hundreds of accounts of government’s representatives and supporters to broadcast a lot of massages that misrepresent the protests(10) by calling it sectarian and broadcasting violent videos and attributing them to February peaceful uprising, these thugs also played important role in spreading hate and sectarian thoughts through the social networks pages.(11) What confirms that these accounts belong to a well-organized system is that they all appeared at the same time on Twitter network to broadcast false information about the protesters just before the crackdown on 17th Feb, all disappeared during the crackdown, and then re-appear all at once after hours to continue their work(12). Programs that monitor Twitter density(13) showed that many massages are originating from the area of Ministry of the Interior, which prove that these accounts are related to it. The report published by former chancellor of the minister’s council Dr Salah Al-Bander already documented that the government is funding groups for sectarian writings on the internet(14). Observers believe that the goal of the campaign of misinformation waged by the government’s thugs is to break the confidence of followers in social networks in it as a source of independent information as a result of flow of false information send by pro-government people against advocates of the protests. Observers believe that the campaigns of cyber thugs who appeared in Bahrain pose a serious threat to the future of democratic movements and the fair and equitable use of social networks and a clear violation of the laws of these sites.(15)

Map showing high density of tweets coming from the area of minster of interior in Manama.

This did not stop at broadcasting false information and incitement to hatred, but also extended by these government internet soldiers to attack active bloggers by accusations and threats(16) to push them into silence and stopping their electronic activity, which did not succeed at that time.

The hatred and arrest campaigns against bloggers:

However, the government’s ferocity in the suppressing the internet activists escalated after the entry of the Peninsula Shield forces, imposition of emergency law and crackdown of protesters in the Pearls Roundabout. It started an organized operation to chase and arrest active bloggers on the internet. BCHR documented till the writing of this report that up to 20 blogger and internet activist had been arrested, including at least 10 who remained in detention. One blogger was also killed under torture in the detention center. List of detainees from internet activists

The campaign of arrests started in 17th March 2011 when 40 insurgents raided the house of the sister of Ali Abdelemam - Bahraini prominent blogger-(17) where he lives to arrest him again despite his release in February 23, 2011 after his imprisonment for more than 6 months(18). The security force did not succeed in his arrest and his fate became unknown after his disappearance. It’s worth mentioning that Abdelemam is the founder of the bahrainonline.org site, which is a popular forum known for publishing news about the ongoing human right violations and articles of government’s opposition for years. Dr Abdul Jalil AlSingace - a blogger and official spokesman and director of the Office of Human Rights of the Movement of Liberties and Democratic "Haq"- was also arrested 17th March. He was held previously with Ali Abdulemam and 21 other activists from August 2010 until February 2011, and he condemned on his blog http://alsingace.katib.org discriminations against Shi'a community and criticized the continued encroachment on civil liberties in Bahrain. Both detainees have stated to the court last October that they have been tortured and severely miss-treated during detention(19), and also talked about it to the media in their brief release period(20). The government announced subsequently that both bloggers will be tried in a military court as a part of a group of 21 activists on charges of connection with a terrorist organization aiming to overthrow the regime.(21) On 19th March 2011, there was a raid on the house of Said Yousif Almuhafdah –blogger and human right activists- to arrest him. His family was threatened that the security forces will come back every night if he does not surrender to authorities.

On Facebook and Twitter, appeared pages(22) that called a group bloggers, known by their real names, traitors and accused them of conspiring against the government. Some of these bloggers stood out on Twitter to broadcast their opinions - which were not necessarily in favor of the protests - and to send live coverage of the protests with attached pictures. Among those targeted in the campaign, the “god father” of Bahraini bloggers Mahmood Al Yousif(23) and the founder of "No Sunni no Shiite, just Bahraini" campaign, which calls for breaking the sectarianism and for unity of Bahrainis. The campaign was popular among the citizens but was not well received by the authority, which blocked the website of the campaign(24) before closing it eventually and those with campaign’s logo were exposed to insult and threats at the checkpoints(25). Also among those targeted, the blogger "Redbelt", the founder of “#UniteBahrain” on Twitter(26), which received great popularity on social networks and it aimed to resist the campaigns of hatred and discrimination on social networks.

The blogger Mohammed Al-Masqati was one of many who received direct threats from loyal members to the authorities, as he received threats from a members of the royal family called Mohammed Al-Khalifa(27), telling him that he "will make his family search for him."

A few days after these campaigns of hatred, a campaign of arrests started and targeted some of these bloggers. Mahmoud Al-Yousef, "Redbelt" and Mohammed Al-Maskati were arrested (28) during night raids on their homes on 30th March 2011. The first two (29) were released the next day after more than 24 hours of detention, after an international campaign on Twitter and press and a statement from the US department of State (30) pointing to the need for the release of Al-Youssef and the other bloggers. Al-Maskati was also released a week after his arrest.

Threats to prevent solidarity with detained bloggers continued especially from Mohammed Al-Kalifa as he stated in several occasions that “anyone that’s living in Bahrain and is supporting the terrorist emoodz (Al-Maskati), will have his IP address taken and will get arrested”. Targeting these voices by the government confirms its goal of preventing electronic networks from becoming a means of creating a united community, as it is easier for its internet thugs to spread the hatred messages in the absence of voices calling for unity, which enables it to tighten its grip on the freedom of expression on the web indirectly. Prior to this, the government had blocked one of the platforms of communication between the Bahraini bloggers bahrainblogs.org.

Death of a blogger in detention:

On 9th April 2011, the internet activist Zakaria Rashed Hassan Al-Ashiri was announced dead. He was responsible for the affairs of the village at the site of Dair.net (32), which published news of the Dair village and was closed after his arrest. Zakaria was arrested a week earlier on 2nd April 2011 with charges of "incitement to hatred", "spreading false news", "promoting sectarianism" and "call to overthrow the regime in electronic forums". His death was attributed by the Ministry of Interior to sickle cell anemia. However, his family refused to sign the death certificate and demanded an autopsy, as evidence of torture was apparent all over his body.

Marks of torture visible on the body of Zakaryia

Ahmad Yousif Al-Dairi is also among the detained internet activists. He is the director of the Dair Net website and has been detained along with his sons on 1st April 2011. It seems that he does not receive necessary medical treatment for his diabetes. His family fears that he might have similar fate to his colleague.

The government also detained some photographers with internet activity, such as Mujtaba Salmat and Hussain Abbas Salim (known as Hussain Al-Khal) on 17th and 28th March, respectively. Both were members of Bahrain Society for Photography and were covering the protests in Pearls Square. Mujtaba Salmat has published hundreds of photos on his Facebook page (33). He was released after one month of detention.

Bahrain News Agency also published an announcement (34) on 10th April stating that human rights activist Nabeel Rajab will be referred to the military prosecutor because of publishing false pictures through his Twitter page. Nabeel Rajab had published pictures of the detained "Ali Isa Saqer", who died in prison. Those pictures showed signs of torture that led to the death of the latter (Mr Saqar). This is the first time in the Arab world that a person might be tried because of a “tweet”. What raises more concerns about torture of activists is that they are not allowed to meet their families and lawyers throughout the period of detention.

Campaigns of incitement and threatening of activists escalated to include Maryam Al-Khawajah - head of foreign relation office of BCHR and twitter activist- as she received many threats on twitter including threats of murder because of her international human right activity, especially after her testimony in a hearing at United States Congress held this month about the deterioration of the human rights situation in Bahrain.

Message reads:"Special Forces of Riffa Announces wasting the blood of Mariam AlKhawaja and with help of honorable people of Muharraq, and as soon as she returns to Bahrain we will take our actions."

Following the arrests and electronic threats, dozens of bloggers resorted to hiding to avoid arrest, and most of those who had been released had almost stopped writing. It was noted that the activity of many people stopped totally and their fate is unknown. It is not clear if they are actually arrested or hiding because of fear of arrest.(35)

Investigations because of Facebook and mass withdrawals from social networks:

Threats did not stop at active bloggers, as every user of social networks is now at risk, if he has put on anything on his page that indicates his affiliation with or support for the protesters. After the social network was the final outlet for people to express their opinion, it became a source of threat to the protesters. Pages that called the protesters and participants in strikes traitors spread on Facebook (36). Hundreds of their pictures were published and lists of their names spread on social networks and forums accompanied by calls demanding their arrest and punishment. A photo of the physician Khulood Al-Sayyad emerged on one of these pages immediately before her arrest.

Some government institutions also held their workers accountable for what they wrote on the pages of these social networks. The private Facebook page of an employee of Labour Market Regulatory Authority was shown in a television program broadcasted by the governmental Bahrain Television channel(37), in a public and direct trial to the views of this employee, and a flagrant violation of his privacy. Ali Ahmed – member of the parliament- stated that any individual, that "his offense of authorities" on the pages of Facebook is proven, should be hold accountable and administrative actions must be taken against him mounting up to firing him from work. The Chief Executive of Labour Market Regulatory Authority Ahmed Ali, who was present in the studio, pledged to do so.

University of Bahrain formed committees to investigate into the events of the university(38) that took place on 13th March 2011 and newspapers reported that this committee is seeking information through videos, photos, Facebook pages, Twitter and witnesses,‬ noting ‮ ‬that the information will cover ‮days of the events as well as preceding days(39). ‬ Some of the university students who have been interrogated said that their writings, photographs and comments on the pages of Facebook were used as evidence condemning them with offence to the authorities and they were dismissed from the university despite their high grades, in total disregard of their right to express their views freely in their personal pages. The head of the university in an earlier statement said that a number of students on overseas scholarships from the University of Bahrain to gain further advanced degrees might be subjected to deprivation of their scholarships because of their participations on the internet.(40)

Others who were summoned for interrogation at the center of criminal investigations said that they have been forced to open their private Facebook pages to make sure of their contents as part of the investigation. Investigations included even girls who are fifteen years old or less because of their writings on the Facebook page. Eman Al-Aswami (15 years) was detained on 12th May for 11 hours to question her about her participation on Facebook pages. As a result of these implications, many Bahraini members closed their pages on Facebook permanently to avoid arrest and prosecution because of expressing their opinions or participating in pictures or links related to the public protests.

After the block: closing websites and loss of information:

The authorities continued to block websites and pages. However, there was a new phase of withholding information on the internet in the past months, as people started to face more websites that are fully closed and all the information that they contained cannot be accessed. While some sites show a message stating that the site is temporary stopped, others show a message stating that the site has been stopped by the hosting company.

BCHR kept a record of the closed websites, which are mostly public sites, specialized in publishing news of local villages and contain heritage and historic information regarding those villages, some of which might not be documented by any other source similar to the documentation by the people of these villages and internet users have done. Some of these closed websites also documents human rights violations with pictures and details and these websites were an important channel of communication between individuals and the exchange and dissemination of information. While some sites were closed due to the fear of their managers from detention after the escalation of the arrest campaign that included many of the managers of websites, others were closed after the arrest of their managers.

List of the websites that have been closed recently

It was also noted that many of the protests videos(41) uploaded on YouTube disappeared, as a message stating that the videos were deleted due to notifications of copy-right infringements appeal, although these videos were taken by individuals from site of the protest.

The government also closed the official website of the Jaffaria Waqf (Endowments) Directorate jwd.gov.bh on 29th April 2011 and replaced its main page by an official block-page.(42) This happened after activists resorted to the information listed on the site to reach licenses of the ancient mosques, which the authorities has demolished, with the excuse that they are not registered, although they appear to be officially registered based on the documents on the website.

Manama Voice Newspaper website manamavoice.com was forcefully stopped after several hacking attempts and the news paper continued to report news through their Facebook page.

The authorities also blocked the website of Al-Wasat Newspaper on 3rd April 2011 after accusing it of spreading false and misleading news that distort the picture and reputation of the kingdom outside and they decided to close it. After forcing 3 of its main journalists, including its chief editor, to resign, the newspaper was re-opened and its website was un-blocked on 4th April 2011.

Extreme self-censorship: closing electronic accounts:

Many of the internet users in Bahrain started to exercise high degrees of self-censorship that reached to the complete cessation of writing and closing pages and personal sites to avoid prosecution, but the authorities continued to send messages and guidance for more control. The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority issued a bulletin urging social networks users to "refrain from publishing, sending or forwarding incorrect or extremist messages and images of extreme violence or pornography." Referring to the materials that protester circulated during the past two months, which exposed the violence of authorities in dealing with the protesters and killing them. While the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority continues issuing laws and regulations that increase the restrictions on freedom of expression and publication, it has not taken any action against the continuing threats to network users, which amounted to death threats, and resulted in the arrest of some of them, in the absence of law to protect the citizen and internet activist from bullying. There is a discussion about a law draft in this regard since 2005 but it never saw the light.(43)

Although Bahraini protests took place in the streets and Pearls Square, the internet and social networks played a vital role in communication and transferring people into effective working groups especially regarding documenting and exposing the human right violations along with the frightening silence of the international world media.

BCHR feels extreme worry from restrictions on protesters to express their views in their last outlet and pushing them to exercise a high degree of self-censorship that reached up to the full withdrawal from the network and the closure of their websites and personal pages. This threatens of a sharp deterioration in personal freedom and also places the local electronic information content in danger of losing a large amount of information that documented the important aspects of Bahrain history, especially in the public websites of the villages, and also documented the human rights violations that have been taking place in Bahrain for years and increased recently.

In the opinion of BCHR, the government's determination to ignore the international agreements and commitments that it made to respect the freedom of expression only enhances its position in the black lists of authoritarian and undemocratic countries. Reporters Without Borders has already included Bahrain in the category of (under surveillance) in its report on the enemies of the internet. Freedom House has included Bahrain in the “not free country” category in its report on internet freedom in the world in 2011.

Based on all of the above information, BCHR requests the following from the Bahraini government:

- Immediate cession of the prosecution of all internet activists and bloggers and the release of all those detained immediately. - Immediate and impartial investigation in the case of torture and death of an internet activist in prison. - Stop chasing and punishing individuals for exercising their legitimate right to express their opinion through electronic pages. - Abolition of all sanctions implemented on individuals for exercising their legitimate right of freedom of expression, including students who have been dismissed or lost their scholarship because of their writing on the web pages. - Lifting the ban on all public forums and cultural, social, human rights, political and religious discussion sites. - Cancel all measures that would restrict freedom of opinion and expression, or prevent the transmission of information. - Take firm actions to stop the activity of electronic bullying and threats that affect internet activists and bloggers. - Achievement of its international obligations and respect for all forms of freedom of expression as enshrined by international covenants and treaties. - Amendment of the press law No. 47 of 2002 in line with international standards of human rights.

References:

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