4 June 2019 – In the last few weeks, the Bahraini government has taken increased measures to criminalize dissent via social media, specifically targeting the accounts of activists and their followers with a new legal campaign and increased threats. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) strongly condemns this intense suppression of free expression and calls on Bahrain to amend all legislation directly or indirectly criminalizing the basic human right to free speech. Additionally we call on Bahrain to immediately release all detainees held for exercising their right to free expression.
On 20 May 2019, the Director-General of the Ministry of Interior’s General-Directorate of Anti-Corruption, Economic and Electronic Security (GDAEES) announced that the Directorate had conducted an investigation into social media accounts that “encourage sedition and harm civil peace, social fabric and stability” and determined that these accounts were run mostly by individuals in Iran, Qatar, Iraq, and European countries, or “fugitives convicted in absentia.” The Director-General claimed these accounts were involved in “executing a systematic plan to tarnish the image of Bahrain and its people,” and stressed the importance of not dealing or interacting with such accounts to avoid accountability.
Notably, the countries listed in the police announcement are all countries where activists and former political figures have sought refuge after fleeing Bahrain. The announcement specifically named activist Sayed Yousif AlMuhafdha as one of the “fugitives” managing these accounts. AlMuhafdah is the Vice President of Salam for Democracy and Human Rights and a board member of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), and is currently exiled in Germany. They also called out Hassan Abdulnabi AlSatri, who currently resides in Australia.
Following the announcement from the GDAEES, Bahrain’s Council of Representatives’ Committee for Foreign Affairs, Defence and National Security announced a bill concerning the “misuse” of social media, which the Chairman of the Committee defined as that “which harms community peace, causes division and weakens national unity.” The Chairman also noted that the bill would focus on heightening penalties for “defamation, insult, spreading rumours and infringing on individuals, bodies, entities and state institutions.” The King of Bahrain then amended Article 11 of Bahrain’s counter-terror legislation to extend outside of Bahrain’s territory and to include criminal liability for anyone who possesses statements allegedly supporting terrorism “for a purpose of distributing it or informing others about it.”
On 30 May 2019, Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior posted a Tweet containing a message from the Cybercrime Division of the GDAEES, which stated “Anti-cybercrime: Those who follow inciting accounts that promote sedition and circulate their posts will be held legally accountable.” That same day, Bahraini individuals reported being targeted with a text from the Cybercrime Division, which stated: “Dear citizen be careful not to follow the accounts inciting hatred and spreading rumors since you will be legally accountable. Regards, the Directorate of Cyber Crime.”
Bahrain’s counter-terror legislation was already overly broad, therefore impeding on a number of protected rights, such as those of expression, assembly, and association. The legislation is in violation of Bahrain’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and in contravention to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), both of which provide protections for freedoms of thought, opinion and expression, assembly and association, and the right to freedom from arbitrary detention. Additionally, during Bahrain’s third cycle of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process, three states made recommendations concerning reform of Bahrain’s counter-terror system, all of which Bahrain accepted. Further, Bahrain received 12 recommendations concerning the rights to freedom of expression and assembly during its third cycle, ten of which Bahrain accepted. However, rather than reforming the counter-terror law and protecting free expression as recommended by the Human Rights Committee and as accepted by Bahrain during the UPR process, Bahrain’s amendment to the counter-terror law now expands coverage to those outside of Bahrain and extends criminal liability to individuals who simply possess or share information on the activities deemed unlawful under the counter-terror law – therefore widening its repressive reach.
The kingdom has previously cracked down on online criticism. Prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab was targeted and harassed for his use of social media. On 21 February 2018, Bahrain’s High Criminal Court sentenced Nabeel to five years in prison on politically-motivated charges of “spreading false rumors in time of war,” “insulting public authorities,” and “insulting a foreign country” stemming solely from tweets and re-tweets critical of torture in Bahraini prisons and the war in Yemen. His sentence was upheld on 31 December 2018 and he has now exhausted all legal remedies to reverse the charges, and will remain in prison until 2023. Also in 2018, former Bahraini Member of Parliament Ali Rashed AlAsheeri was arrested for tweeting that he would boycott the elections – the government deemed these tweets to be “critical of the country’s upcoming parliamentary elections.” He was later convicted of violating elections through “the use of force, threat or interference, or by participation in rallies or demonstrations” and sentenced to one month of community service for this tweet.
“The extreme elimination of all forms of free expression and the targeting of activists and human rights defenders in Bahrain should be of utmost concern among the international community,” says ADHRB Executive Director Husain Abdulla. “Bahrainis can now be charged with terrorism for simply liking a tweet that the Bahraini government deems critical. The kingdom has already effectively closed civil space, and virtual spaces are suffering this same fate. There are no avenues available for Bahrainis to peacefully voice their opinions or criticisms. The international community must come together to pressure Bahrain to make concrete changes to open up space and protect fundamental freedoms, including the right to free expression.”
Bahrain’s increased measures to suppress online activism and dissent, both domestically and abroad, will have a chilling effect on free expression. ADHRB is deeply concerned with Bahrain’s continued attacks on free speech and online criticism, and calls on the kingdom to amend its restrictive laws and release those detained under free expression-related charges.