Bahrain: The role of “Social Media” in promoting democracy
Reem Khalifa - 06/06/2012
In early 2011, Bahrain was the third country to experience its own “Arab Spring”, following Tunisia and Egypt. On the 14th February 2011, thousands of youths marched towards the capital city of Manama demanding political reforms. The cry for freedom and change was spread through social media such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, used as a centralising force for protestors. Many Bahraini young people sought refuge online, far away from government censorship laws that violate their basic human rights to free speech. Social networks have created a space for the voiceless people who had no opportunity to speak out before. It is also a space that continues to make their voice heard on a wider scale, beyond Bahrain’s boundaries.
Current censorship laws are based on a gag order on the media made in 2002 by the Bahraini government. The censorship regime was to be applied to the Internet thus restricting access to Human Rights debate websites. The objective was to consolidate power in order to crackdown on the opposition.
Like in Bahrain, other governments in the Middle East have taken action against prominent bloggers and activists who have given a voice to the opposition. The government consolidated its restrictive regime to prevent Bahraini people from expressing their political views. Hence, new measures were imposed on the Internet and media.
Well-known online forums and websites were blocked so people resorted to new sources. “Social media” became an empowering tool for the pro-democracy movement. Youth activists, journalists, political figures and the voiceless all found tools like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Skype stronger and more effective than any other means to spread messages across the world. Photos and videos can be posted the instant an event occurs.
Twitter in particular, was to become the most powerful tool for the Bahraini people after the 14th of February 2011. This date was a turning point in Bahrain spring as a young youth was killed. Another was killed the following day. The massacre then took place on the 17th of Feb 2011 in Pearl Square. On the 18th of the same month, the Bahrain national army fired live ammunition on pro- democracy protesters who attempted to go to Pearl Square. All events were reported by the social media and citizen journalism flourished and spread fast among Bahrainis as it became the only tool to shout and raise the issue of Bahrain.
The authorities deployed cyber trolls to tweet against the opposition. They created anonymous twitter accounts to post inflammatory materials to formant division and spread rumours about the opposition’s actions. They even fabricated a well-known figure’s account to tarnish his reputation.
In Bahrain, the government controls radio, TV and most newspapers with the exception of Al Wasat. Only opinions that defend and support all government’s policies are allowed. Dissenting publications are suppressed and neutralised to fit the confines of the oppressive political environment. The authorities do not want to listen or acknowledge any other opinions on any public issue. Thus, social media users are considered as enemies to be stamped out.
The “Social Media” sphere has now become one of the last spaces for free speech in the Middle East, and it was not surprising that Reporters without Borders (RSF – Reporteurs sans frontières) considered Bahrain as an enemy of the Internet. In its report for the year 2011, the Paris-based non-governmental organization RSF stated that Bahrain’s government "has bolstered its censorship efforts" in reaction to the pro-democracy uprising that began on February 14, 2011.
Pro democracy protesters carrying Bahrain Flags in red and white in a recent demonstration that took place on the 1st of June 2012 in west Manama
According to RSF, “Bahrain offers a perfect example of successful crackdowns, with an information blackout achieved through an impressive arsenal of repressive measures: exclusion of the foreign media, harassment of human rights defenders, arrests of bloggers and publishers (one of whom died behind bars), prosecutions and defamation campaigns against free expression activists, disruption of communications."
Social Media empowered youth groups and social networks to speak out and present the other view and IT-literate activists managed to take advantage of these communication methods to motivate, mobilise, and organise their actions. Even during the crackdown in 2011, Bahrainis did not stop their demands and struggles for their rights, and the struggle for democracy manifests itself online and on the streets.
Bahrainis are now more aware that they have an effective means to voice their aspirations for change, reforms, and democracy.
Social Media activism definitely has the power to make a difference in the realm of democracy promotion in the Middle East, particularly in empowering civil society, and fostering a stronger civil society suffering under oppressive regimes. The real predicament is how people will be guaranteed the right to access the Internet under these repressive governments.
The Arab Spring demonstrated that Arabs are the same as all other people. They desire to live with dignity, freedom and justice. The Bahraini people are part of a global movement striving for democracy and human rights. The support of the International community would help them achieve their noble aims.
The ruling elites must deal with the people on the basis of equal rights as prescribed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the West will need to look at the Gulf region with same eyes as they looked at Eastern Europe and Latin America in 1990s.
Mass demonstration held in Manama on the 21st April 2012. Bahraini women were holding a Bahrain flag with a poster: " Live ammunition and shot gun pallets are Bahrain dictatorship’s gifts in a Formula one race".
While the social media played an important role in spreading the message of pro- democracy protests in Bahrain, it must pointed out that without the support of human rights organizations and free press around the world, we would not have witnessed the harsh criticism of the Bahraini government delivered during the Universal Periodic Review conducted by the UN, and Human Rights Council in Geneva in May 2012.
There were also brave journalists working for international news organizations, who managed to break the silent by entering Bahrain, witnessing the continuous events, and then producing reports exposing the brutal crackdown on protests.
*Bahraini journalist writes on Bahraini matters for the Associated Press and contributes op-eds to various publications in the Middle East.