The Middle East Channel

The Internet in Bahrain: breaking the monopoly of information

The Internet in Bahrain: breaking the monopoly of information

When there is breaking news in the tiny island state of Bahrain, you are not likely to hear about it on the local television or radio channels. Instead, the first place it is likely to be reported is on one of the scores of Internet discussion forums run by Bahrainis. This is just what happened earlier this month when someone posted a message on the popular forum BahrainOnline.org breaking the news that the site’s founder, Ali Abdulemam, had been arrested by the National Security Agency.

Abdulemam’s arrest was part of a wider government crackdown on Bahrain’s political opposition in recent weeks in which more than 200 people have reportedly been detained, a gag order has been imposed on the press and a prominent human rights group has been taken over by the government. Although Abdulemam is not directly involved in politics himself, he was targeted because of the key role that his website plays in serving as a space where opposition activists can air their point of view. 

Bahrain was my home for the first 26 years of my life, and I was among the first generation of bloggers in the country. In 2006 I was interrogated by the National Security Agency for activities seemingly connected to my blog, after which I was put on a blacklist and banned from entering Bahrain again. I have had a chance to see Bahrain through some of its ups and downs, but friends in the country tell me the political situation today is worse than it has been since the end of the last uprising in the 1990s.

The extreme lengths to which it has gone in its latest crackdown (lawyers of several detainees say their clients have been tortured in custody) suggests that the government is now looking to break the back of, and not just supress, any meaningful political opposition once and for all. The government knows that it will not be able to achieve this without clamping down on Internet activism. The Internet has been a thorn in the side of the Al Khalifa ruling regime since the time it was introduced to Bahrain in the mid-nineties. This recent crackdown certainly is not the first time the government has tried to muffle online voices — in fact, Ali Abdulemam was arrested once before in 2005 during a period of political contention.

The Internet has been a crucial site for political life in Bahrain for many years. During the pro-democracy uprising in Bahrain of the 1990’s, information in the country was controlled entirely by the regime. The only radio and television stations were owned by the state (as continues to be the case today), while self-censorship was the norm in the nominally-independent press. Despite the civil unrest on the streets, there was no reporting on it, or any local politics, beyond public statements released by the government. The arrival of the Internet though created a breach in the state’s control of information. As early as 1996, the London-based dissident group the Bahrain Freedom Movement was sending out mass emails to Bahraini domain email addresses detailing the civil unrest and reports of state torture in the country at the time. But the real change came at around the turn of the millennium, when several online discussion forums about Bahrain started popping up, most prominent among them, Bahrain Online.

On these discussion forums, Bahrainis could for the first time discuss and debate local news and politics openly and anonymously, without fear of being arrested — and they did. At any time of the day, the number of users on Bahrain Online, for example, is in the hundreds, and at peak hours it is in the thousands. That is significant for a country of less than 600,000 nationals. Soon, the online forums became the first stop that opposition activists turned to when issuing public statements or announcing protest rallies. It was on these forums that news about the "Bandargate scandal" was first broken in 2006 — an alleged conspiracy in which the government was accused of trying to to rig parliamentary elections.  The forums also highlighted cases of sectarian discrimination, police brutality, state corruption and political naturalization.

The discussion forums were also an early form of crowdsourcing on the Internet. When opposition protests were held, for example, users on the discussion forums would give minute-by-minute updates on the situation from different locations, especially when clashes would break out with anti-riot police. Photos and videos of the events would be posted on the forums within hours (now minutes) of being taken.

At one point when I was living in Bahrain, the forums were so active that if I heard a bang at night I would be able check on the Internet forums and, sure enough, someone would have posted about it within minutes. Some users have even posted photos of government security agents who show up at protests, prompting the agents to start covering their faces when appearing in public.

In these ways, cyberactivism in Bahrain stand out from comparable cases in other parts of the world. Users on the online forums are not just commenting on news from the traditional media, but are constantly generating news from their own sources, and online activism in Bahrain actually translates in to activism on the street. (The Arabic term "abtal al-keyboard," literally "keyboard heroes," is used to disparagingly describe those online users who post angry messages but fail to show up street protests).

The rise of the discussion forums sparked a cat-and-mouse game between the government authorities and the website administrators. The government would block websites it deemed dangerous, while the administrators would respond by changing domain names, or coming up with new ways to bypass the filters. By 2005, the regime began to show signs of frustration when it arrested Ali Abdulemam for the first time, along with two other administrators of Bahrain Online for 15 days before releasing them. In April of that year, the government announced that all websites in Bahrain (the exact definition left unclear) would be required to register with the Ministry of Information. The following year, the government blocked Google Earth, after cyber-activists used it to show satellite images of the vast lavish palaces of the royal family and compared them to the cramped villages of most of the country’s population. In the latest crackdown, the government has arrested Abdulemam once again, accusing him of "spreading false news," while scores of new websites have also been blocked.

The issues are deeply political. Although the conflict in Bahrain has a very important sectarian factor to it (a Sunni family ruling over a majority Shia population), the central dispute today is over the country’s constitution. All of the human rights and political activists detained in the latest crackdown have been campaigning for a reform of the 2002 Constitution which would limit the wide-ranging powers of the King and his family and give more legislative authority to the elected representatives. They have also been calling for a boycott of the parliamentary elections scheduled for next month — a likely factor in the timing of the government clampdown on their activities.

But there is more than just constitutional reform and elections at stake, as the Inte
rnet discussion forums have made another, much more subtle, political impact. Prior to the Internet, the regime’s stranglehold on the flow of information in the country extended beyond just news and politics to history and culture also. (Up until just a few months ago, the ministries of culture and information were a single entity). The aim was to ensure that the Al Khalifa regime had the exclusive ability to define what Bahrain was. At its core, this was about conflating the ruling family with the state itself.

School textbooks teach that the ruling Al Khalifa tribe "liberated" Bahrain when it conquered the islands in the 18th Century; displays in the National Museum gloss over the periods when  Bahrain was ruled by Shia dynasties; the local radio and television stations feature only the dialect of Arabic spoken by the Sunnis, to the exclusion of the Bahrani accent used by the Arab Shia.

The arrival of the Internet though created a new space in which alternate views of history and culture were easily disseminated. The alternative history commonly discussed on the online forums describes the arrival of the Al Khalifa family to Bahrain as an "invasion" that was resisted by the native population. Dozens of community websites devoted to individual villages collect local oral histories never recorded before. Amateur films uploaded on youtube feature stories set in a typical Shia village, with the characters speaking the Bahrani dialect.

In effect, it has ended the government monopoly over history and culture and has created a marketplace of competing ideas about what it means to be Bahraini. In this sense, there is something very democratic and equalizing about the change brought about by the Internet to the country’s politics. And the extreme length that the rulers have gone to quash online activism is an indicator of the potential threat it poses to them.

It is important to be clear though: the Internet alone will by no means bring down any government. But the continued repression of discussion on the Internet may certainly exacerbate the desire for change.

Fahad Desmukh is a Karachi-based journalist and former Bahraini blogger.