Bahrain After Directives From The King And The Prime Minister: The Campaign On Social Media Activists Escalates
The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights expresses its concern at the escalation of a campaign by the Bahraini authorities targeting freedom of expression on the Internet and prosecuting activists, human rights workers and broadcasters over views expressed on social media. Authorities create legal cases against them – sometimes with the aim of threatening them, and sometimes seeking to silence them and disappear them behind prison bars. This is the case particularly after recent directives from the King and the Prime Minister ordering that activists on social media be pursued.
On 27 August 2014 the general prosecutor questioned human rights activist Nader Abdulemam (@NaderAbdulEmam) after three people, according to the prosecutor, accused him of “denigrating the companion Khalid Bin al-Waleed*” on his personal Twitter account. The charge was based on a tweet he published commenting on a historical event that occurred 1,400 years ago, and Abdulemam was accused of “openly insulting a person exalted in the religion.” The authorities ordered that he be detained for seven days during the investigation, a period that was subsequently extended until 28 September. It should be mentioned here that one of the complainants retweeted the Tweet he considered “defamatory” – it was then retweeted more than 680 times, which is more than the re-tweets of the original post by Abdulemam.
Nader Abdulemam is known nationally as a human rights defender and a frequent attendee of local democracy summits. In February 2014 he joined with a group of other activists to demand that the Ministry of Social Development proclaim a new human rights organization called “Insaf” [Equity], which would fight the very real discrimination against citizens and people living in Bahrain, of all different social groups and sects. They are still waiting for the Ministry’s response. Abdulemam is active through his writings on the social media programme Twitter – he has 97,000 followers. This was not the first time that Abdulemam is targeted, and he has been investigated on numerous occasions. On 12 January 2012 he received a direct hit to the face from a teargas canister during a peaceful demonstration in the capital Manama.
On 31 August 2014 the general prosecutor questioned Yacoub Al-Slaise (@ysLaise) , a political activist and leader of the Open Youth Coalition. He was questioned over a Tweet he posted on his Twitter page on 7 June 2014, which centred on what he called problems in the parliamentary election process and where he mentioned that the military personnel were to be allowed to vote, but their votes are likely to be controlled by the state. The general prosecutor accused him of “openly defaming the army.” and ordered that he be detained during the investigation. However, the judge at the First Criminal Court allowed Al-Slaise to be released on condition that he stays at his stated address. The judge decided to postpone his trial to a session to be held on 13 October 2014. Al-Slaise has been tried on numerous occasions previously, on the basis of tweets published from his account.
On 9 September 2014 the "Department of Electronic Crimes" at the criminal prosecutor called feminist activist and women's rights defender Ghada Jamsheer (@Ghada_Jamsheer) for investigation. The activist said in a subsequent tweet that the investigation had been prompted by her writings on Twitter about corruption at Hamad al-Jamii Hospital on al-Muhriq Island. She wrote that she will be tried in 10 cases, one of which was brought forward by hospital leader General Doctor Salman Atiyat Allah Al Khalifa, a member of the ruling family. The activist had written that the high positions at the hospital are divided among members of one family. It should be mentioned that her blog (http://bahrain-eve.blogspot.com) has been blocked in Bahrain for several years. On 15 September 2014, Jamsheer was arrested and a detention order of seven days was issued against her on charges of defamation on twitter.
The King of Bahrain, Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa, issued a directive during a visit to the Bahraini Defence Forces on 3 September 2014, saying that he will fight "wrongful use" of social media by legal means. He indicated that "there are those who attempt to exploit social media networks to publish negative thoughts, and to cause breakdown in society, under the pretext of freedom of expression or human rights." Prior to that, the Prime Minister, and uncle of King Khalifa Bin Salman Al Khalifa, issued orders during a session of the council of ministers on 26 August 2014, for "those who incite hatred on social media to be held accountable and for steps to be taken to prevent those inciting terrorism and social breakdown, whether through statements or publications, so that nobody can wrongly believe they are above accountability."
Significantly, 16 social media users have spent time in prison in 2014 because of items posted on social media, particularly on Twitter and Instagram. Abd Ali Khair is still serving a 10-year sentence for forwarding a message on the social messaging service WhatsApp, while the photographer Hussein Habil and the blogger Jasim al-Naimi are still serving 5-year sentences on charges of wrongful use of social media.
The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights believes that this escalation in the campaign against social media users comes in the light of a wider attempt to quell the political unrest that has continued for over three years, and to use suppression as the sole method of replying to popular demands. The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights believes that the Bahraini authorities are formulating accusations and using them as a tool to silence voices calling for reform and democracy in the country, using law as a cover. Investigating people writing on social media, or public speech or for writings on websites and other forms of peaceful expression and referring them for criminal proceedings is a direct violation of Bahrain's pledge to respect the freedom of peaceful expression under the International Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states in Article 19: 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.
Based on the above, the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights calls on the United States, the United Kingdom, the United Nations and all other allies and relevant international institutions to put pressure on the government of Bahrain to:
- Immediately release activists Nader Abdulemam and Ghada Jamsheer and all prisoners of conscience in Bahrain.
- Drop all accusations against activists for exercising their right to peaceful expression of opinion, based on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and stop investigating Twitter users for their opinions.
- Immediately abolish all laws restricting freedoms and that violate basic human rights as laid out by the International Declaration of Human Rights.
- Reform the criminal justice system to ensure that it adheres to international standards regarding the required legal proceedings and fair trials.