The image accompanying today's New York Times' article on the situation in Bahrain: "A policeman tried to put out fires set by protesters in Budaiya, west of Manama, on Sunday" (Photo: Hamad Mohammed/Reuters)
UPDATE 2045 GMT: Robert Mackey, who runs The Lede blog for The New York Times has written to us pointing out his coverage of Bahrain --- for example, his interview with activist Ala'a Shehabi on Friday --- as well as Souad Mekhennet's other coverage for The Times and her interview with Zainab Alkhawaja for Der Spiegel.
I note all of this while standing by the critique of The Times article published this morning.
We have often considered the Bahraini regime's efforts to put out the "right" story since mass protests began in February 2011, but this article from the Gulf Daily News --- posted after a Grand Prix when foreign reporters were turned away at the international airport, subjected to strict security checks, detained, and deported --- may take the prize for breath-taking audacity: "Taste of Bahrain's Hospitality for Foreign Journalists".
A piece which could well be satire --- but isn't --- proclaims:
FOREIGN journalists who attacked Bahrain for hosting the Formula One race were spotted happily tucking into a free BBQ run by the Bahrain International Circuit (BIC).
Many of them called for the race to be scrapped but were seen enjoying Bahraini hospitality during the "Flavours of Sakhir Bahrain-style BBQ" at the Paddock area on Saturday, which was attended by teams, sponsors, media and other guests.
"There were many of them (foreign journalists) there, who had just weeks ago had been advocating the race should not be held in Bahrain and said they would not be happy at going there," said one journalist, who attended the event.
"They must have realised Bahrain is not the place to miss. Bahrain is certainly not Syria. It's a very hospitable country and life goes on as usual."
Perhaps not the best-measured "news" in the post-barbecue circumstances of Sunday's clashes and arrests. But if the Gulf Daily News has failed, Bahraini officials can celebrate success in a very different outlet --- The New York Times.
In an article posted this morning, "Bahrain Holds Grand Prix, Keeping Protesters at Bay", Souad Mekhennet's fleeting reference to events beyond the ordinary on Sunday is this:
No attempt was made to disrupt the race, although black smoke could be seen rising from nearby villages where protesters had set tires on fire, and some clashed with the police, with several injured, according to reports.
So nothing much occurred on Sunday, and if it did, it cannot be attributed to the actions of security forces or Bahrain's officials, who were only defending themselves --- Mekhennet even leaves the implication that the "several injured" are police officers.
(Later in the piece, Mekhennet gives this "clarification", albeit with claims that we have not seen elsewhere: "Bahraini and Western security officials say protesters are increasingly using homemade bombs; three policemen were injured by such bombs in one village on Sunday, two of them seriously, according to the police and the Ministry of Interior. Opposition groups said several of their members were also injured.")
Mekhennet's apparent oversight and partial reconstruction of events may be attributed to her focus on another agenda: "Although the clashes drew international news media attention to the protesters’ grievances, they also highlighted disagreements over the goals and strategies of the opposition groups."
Now those "goals and strategies" deserve close examination, as we have noted. There is not a single Bahraini opposition, but a range of secular and religious groups and societies. There are vigourous debates over the aims of political change --- should it be reform or wholesale change of the regime?. The have been sustained discussions, after the crackdown of security force tried to crush peaceful protest in spring 2011, over the response --- is it justified to block road with burning tyres and even to use Molotovs in claimed self-defence?
But Mekhennet's purpose here is not to bring out those discussions. Instead, she wants to wipe out the notion of a viable opposition. She puts forth an artificial division between the political society Al Wefaq and prominent activist Zainab Alkhawaja over whether the Grand Prix should have been held, ignoring the bigger fact --- and the rally of tens of thousands of Bahraini on Friday highlighting the fact --- of agreement that the Grand Prix should not be used by the reform to portray a false image of reform, progress, and stability.
Instead, Alkhawaja is Mekhennet's straw-woman to portray a deviant opposition hell-bent on disorder. The reporter never seems to notice that Alkhawaja was arrested this weekend, but she does see this:
Matar Matar, another spokesman for Al Wefaq, said, “We are calling for peaceful protests and are against the use of violence.” The group said it holds only protests that are authorized by the government.
But Ms. Khawaja rejected the argument that demonstrations should always be peaceful.
When asked if she would call on protesters to refrain from using bombs, she said: “It really amazes me when people ask if I will condemn it. I will not.”
Alkhawaja's line, which can be easily learned from interviews that have not been cut into fragments, is that it is a distortion to ask about the response of protesters without noting the actions of the security forces and the sustained repression of the regime.
This, however, would be a distraction for Mekhennet, who continues with her portrayal of the extremist foe of the monarchy:
Mr. Matar said: “We are not calling for an overthrow of the regime. We want reforms and more rights.”
But Ms. Khawaja would not rule out a change of government. “If someone is calling for democracy, he is calling for an end of a dictatorship,” she said, “and if this is the will of the people, this could also mean overthrowing the regime.”
Perhaps this portrayal can be defended as Mekhennet's perception, however simplistic, of the political situation in Bahrain. But then there is always the bigger picture --- the regime's picture --- in what is and is not included by the reporter:
The police have been accused of increasing their use of tear gas to disperse protests. Opposition leaders say tear gas has caused 30 deaths.
In fact, those deaths have passed 30 and reached 35. More significantly, those are far from the only casualties in this conflict --- activists now say the death toll is at least 85. And, as for the protests of the "divided opposition", why should Mekhennet go out on the streets yesterday to see the extent of demonstrations, let alone mention the 10,000s on Friday?
Why even leave the security of the Formula 1 circult? It's so much easier working with the press releases of Bahrain's officials and an occasional interview with a racing fan:
At the Grand Prix, 10 young women who had tickets were arrested after they started shouting antigovernment slogans, opposition groups said.
But for the government, the Grand Prix was a great success. “Several extremists tried to sabotage by trying to divert with unlawful actions the attention from the sports event, but were unsuccessful,” said Abdulaziz Mubarak al-Khalifa, a spokesman.
Some residents came to see the Grand Prix, won by Sebastian Vettel of the Red Bull team, as a respite from the protests.
“It’s sad to say, but we have gotten used to it,” said Khalid Ammar, who had brought his three children to the event. “Every day they are burning tires and clash with the police.”
After the race, police cars blocked roads into the capital to thwart other planned protests.