Bahrain’s Threat to Crack Down on Social Media Users Would Violate Free Expression, Says PEN America
Threat Seeks to Sow Fear Among Social Media Users
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
(WASHINGTON)–The government of Bahrain’s threat to prosecute people who follow social media accounts the government disapproves of is a blatant attempt to violate freedom of expression and access to information, PEN America said in a statement today.
Bahrain’s Ministry of the Interior stated that “illegal violations through the posts of those accounts aren’t part of the freedom of expression” but rather represent a systematic plan to tarnish the image of Bahrain and “harm civil peace and social fabric.”
The Ministry also said most of the accounts were managed from out of the country, echoing prior assertions of a foreign conspiracy. Bahrain has a history of prosecuting peaceful dissidents and critics, causing some to flee to other countries. Although Bahrain’s constitution protects the right to free expression, it includes a lengthy list of caveats that gives the government broad discretion to punish speech it dislikes. More recently, the 2002 Press Law and 2006 Anti-terrorism laws provided overly broad definitions of terrorism to further criminalize speech. The government’s crackdown on free expression has not abated in recent years, and appears to have been emboldened by President Trump’s public assurances to the King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa that there would be no strain in the U.S./Bahraini relationship. Bahrain hosts the 57th Naval Fleet, a key strategic base.
“Punishing people for reading statements and commentary the government doesn’t like is a clear violation of fundamental freedoms of expression and an unwarranted restriction on access to information,” said PEN America’s Washington Director Thomas O. Melia. “It seems that, unable to control the speech of dissidents who have been forced into exile, Bahrain seeks to sow fear of legal action among social media users. Actions and threats like these by the government tarnish the image of Bahrain. The government should desist from enacting the threatened policy and guarantee the rights of its people.”
In 2011, following an uprising against the authoritarian government during the Arab Spring, Bahrain implemented a massive crackdown, imprisoning hundreds in mass trials and stripping many of their citizenship. According to the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, 990 people have been stripped of citizenship since 2012, and most opposition figures are either in prison or have fled abroad. Human rights defenders like Sayed Yousif al-Muhafdha, Hassan al-Sitri, and Saeed Shehab continue nonetheless to speak out from exile despite slander campaigns against them by their government and legal charges in absentia.
PEN America previously raised alarm on behalf of activist, academic and blogger Dr. Abduljalil Al-Singace, who was sentenced in 2011 to life imprisonment. Singace suffers from medical problems that are at least partly a result of torture and ill-treatment he received in prison in 2011. PEN America has also advocated against the unjust conviction of human rights activist Nabeel Rajab on charges of “disseminating false news” in 2015. Rajab spent three months in solitary confinement before he was pardoned, and previously spent two years in prison for taking part in “illegal gatherings.”
CONTACT: PEN America media consultant Suzanne Trimel, [email protected]