On Eve of UN Resolution for Internet Freedom: Websites blocked, Internet Disrupted, and Social Media Posts Continue to Lead to Arrests in Bahrain
The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) is highly concerned with the authorities’ restrictions on freedom of expression on the Internet, its targeting of social media users, as well as with the heightened practice of blocking access to websites which post content critical of the government.
On 1 July 2016, the Director-General of Ministry of Interior (MOI)’s Anti-corruption, Economic and Electronic Security announced “the arrest of a number of people for misusing social media.” According to the statement, those individuals had shared some posts on social media, allegedly inciting people to commit violations, a crime punishable under the Bahraini law.
Two people, social media user Taiba Ismaeel and artist Khalil Al-Madhoon, were among those arrested and charged with the misuse of the Internet for the purpose of inciting against the law.
On 26 June 2016, Taiba Ismaeel (36 years old) was arrested at 3:15 AM by the Bahraini authorities. Security men and women entered her husband’s house in Aali without presenting any arrest or search warrant. They refused to allow her family members call her and insisted on entering her apartment to take her by surprise. They searched her apartment and confiscated her phone. She was interrogated by the public prosecution on 27 June 2016 and charged with allegedly “insulting the King” in remarks posted on Twitter using a pseudonym. The public prosecution remanded her to seven days in detention. She is the mother of two infants (seven months old, and 20 months old). She told her husband that she was subject to psychological pressure during interrogation at the Criminal Investigation Department.
On 27 June 2016, Bahraini artist Khalil Al-Madhoon was summoned for interrogation by the authorities. He was subsequently charged with allegedly “insulting the King” in relation to his Instagram comment. On 29 June 2016, he too was remanded to seven days in detention. Al-Madhoon is a former political detainee and a torture survivor who was targeted in 2011 for being the son of a wanted opposition speaker living in exile. He is also a victim of discrimination, being the only male Arts graduate applying for a teaching job at the Ministry of Education for three years, and getting rejected every year.
The ability to exercise one’s freedom of expression persists as one of the biggest challenges faced in Bahrain. Since the beginning of 2016, BCHR has recorded the arrest of an additional seven Internet users, and the sentencing of nine users, who received a total of 175 months imprisonment and fines of 12,200 Bahraini dinars (USD $4,500). At least another three users were arrested in June, as reported by BCHR. On 12 July, BCHR’s detained president, the leading human rights defender Nabeel Rajab, is expected to have the first hearing in a trial over two charges in relation to tweets and retweets posted in 2015 about the war in Yemen and torture at Jaw prison. Rajab faces imprisonment of up to 13 years if convicted.
BCHR is alarmed at not only the growing practice of curtailing dissent and the rights to freedom of speech and of expression on Internet platforms, but also at the pervasive tactic to cut access to information and any critical commentary of the government by blocking media website platforms, interrupting and throttling access to the Internet, and attempting to prevent the exposure of any form of information that does not align with government rhetoric.
Since the escalation of the crackdown in June 2016, the authorities blocked the websites of the largest political society in the country, Al-Wefaq Islamic Political Society - following its closure. Similarly, the authorities blocked the website of the Islamic Enlightenment (Al-Tawyea) Society. LuaLua TV was forced to change its address four times in a week, as the government kept blocking its website addresses. The online news site “Raialyoum” was obstructed from being accessed through the services of some Internet Service Providers (ISP), due to the critical stance taken in an article written by the chief editor of that media platform. The Internet connection has been interrupted and slowed down around the time and location of mass protest in Deraz. Moreover, a recent investigation by Bahrain Watch has raised concern over the blocking of the popular messaging app Telegram by leading Bahraini ISPs. Adding to the restricted Internet space in Bahrain, reports have noted an increase in automatic twitter accounts that work to manipulate information online and spread sectarian messages.
The government of Bahrain’s actions are in direct violation of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the right to freedom of expression over any platform. It states that “every individual has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of the frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art or through any other media of his choice.” The Universal Declaration of Human Rights also emphasizes this preserved right stating that: “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.”
On 1 July 2016, the UN Human Rights Council passed a new resolution for the protection of freedoms on the Internet, which “condemns unequivocally measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online in violation of international human rights law and call on states to refrain from and cease such measures.”
The Bahrain Center for Human Rights calls on the Bahraini government to:
- Immediately and unconditionally release all Internet users arrested and imprisoned for merely exercising their rights to freedom of speech and expression;
- Abide by international human rights standards by upholding the right to freedom of expression without any restrictions;
- Stop any form of blocking or suspending access to any website platform;
- Immediately end any form of retaliation against Internet users; and
- Respect the recent UN resolution passed by the UN HRC on 1 July 2016, and cease any further actions to disrupt Internet access in the country.