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Bahrain Follow-Up: The Regime's PR Mission and Formula 1 Journalist Joe Saward

See also Bahrain Special: How Regime Supporters Became The "Silent Majority" for 3 Foreign Journalists

In a special feature on Wednesday, EA documented how three supporters of the Bahraini regime set up a meeting to convince three foreign journalists --- Formula 1 blogger Joe Saward, Brad Spurgeon of The New York Times, and David Tremayne of The Independent and The Belfast Telegraph --- that they were the "silent majority" in the country. The three men also put across other messages, in addition to the immediate declaration that the Bahrain Grand Prix was a great asset: key members of the regime, such as the Crown Prince, were dedicated to reform, progress and stability; protesters were a small, misguided, and violent group; Iran was behind any unrest.

The three journalists, to varying degrees, put out and endorsed this "silent majority" within their sectarian framing of an "extremist" Sunni v. Shia Muslim conflict. At the same time, the meeting reinforced claims by the journalists --- running contrary to the observations of many other reporters in Bahrain, some of whom were harassed and detained during their efforts to cover the story --- that there was no mass protest or security presence in the Kingdom.

Joe Saward responded later in the day to the feature with "A Final Note on Bahrain". He did not counter any of the analysis in the article but merely chided: "I hear that there are attempts going on to discredit the story I have written about Bahrain and the people with whom I spoke. This is no great surprise. There are plenty of people who do not want these opinions to be spread."

He shrugs, "Who is to say what is propaganda and what is not propaganda?", but then --- to prove this his blog entries are definitely not propaganda and that he has clearly recognised the "silent propaganda" --- says, "I think is very significant is that there have been many comments since the article was published from people inside Bahrain, from many different backgrounds, who say that it is a true picture."

Seward then publishes without further elaboration, let alone critique, a string of the comments. Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of them published by Saward challenge his view of Bahrain. Two examples:

Fantastic piece, Joe. As a Bahraini it’s quite refreshing to read an objective article by an international journalist which wonderfully summarizes the real situation in Bahrain. Much thanks to Yaqoob, Hasan, Ahmed [the three Bahrainis who met Saward in Starbucks] and yourself; keep it up, mate....

Now that at last you have had your mind expanded and spoken with some real people in Bahrain, you can see that for the most part there is very little problem. The suggestion it is being choreographed by Iranian Shia influences is in my view clear,those that I speak with daily concur.

Now, any analysis of the political situation in the Kingdom should acknowledge that there are strongly-held views in support of the regime's position and framing of the conflict. The point, which Saward cannot or will not note, is that these do not necessarily represent the vast majority of Bahrainis. Any  journalist who wants to establish the complexity of opinion across the country --- rather than taking the easy answer of "all is well except for a troublesome group manipulated by Iran" --- would have to do more than drop in for three days and take the assertions of three Bahrainis as the gospel truth for all.

But that is only part of Saward's omission, and thus reduction of the conflict to his "silent majority". At no point does he recognise a context beyond Starbucks. There is no consideration of the issues that have prompted dissent and protest since February 2011, and indeed for many years before that. There is no recognition of the villages in which there have been almost-daily episodes of marches, police raids, and tear gas. There is no acknowledgement of 85 martyrs claimed by activists, as well as the casualties among the police forces. There is no mention of Abdulhadi Alkhawaja and why is on Day 78 of a hunger strike, or of his daughter Zainab and why she is in jail once more.

And returning to Saward's "Final Note", there is no recognition that the mission of his three Bahrainis in Starbucks --- to convince the outside world, through the journalists, "that reports of discontent are exaggerated; that protesters are a troublesome, very small minority; and that the regime will ensure stability and order if media bias can be countered and exposed" --- is that of Bahrain's monarchy and Government. 

Whether or not the Bahrainis in Starbucks organised the meeting of their own volition or discussed the possibility with others, there is no recognition by Saward of the regime's public-relations efforts to back up this mission. There is no reference to the many millions of dollars spent on US and British PR firms, no mention of the activities of the Information Affairs Authority, no consideration of the phalanx of regime supporters who --- on Twitter, on Facebook, via a range of website, and in comments on blogs --- have pursued a campaign to denounce any dissent as illegitimate. (No recognition or self-reflection, as Saward finds only the comments that praise him and he puts out that assurance, "There are plenty of people who do not want these opinions to be spread.")

No, there is none of this and there will not be. Saward pronounces, "This is a motor racing blog and we must now move on."

But as Saward moves on, the issues in Bahrain remain, to be considered by others who may not rest easy with the "silent majority" handed to them over coffee. The protests in the villages will continue, the tear gas and birdshot will probably take more lives, the detentions will continue and may accelerate, the trials --- accused doctors and nurses, sentenced to up to 15 years in prison, are in appeals court again today --- will drag on, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja's fight for rights may end in his death.

None of this may cross Saward's attention, let alone matter to him. Still, he has made his brief but notable contribution. For him, it is the proclamation that all dissent can be set aside for the regime's "silent majority".

For me, it is another confirmation of the waging of a propaganda battle that foresees no political accommodation, as the regime puts out its caricature of all dissenters as deluded, violent pawns of Tehran and Shia extremists. And it is a snapshot of how, in that battle, a foreign journalist becomes a valuable warrior in his proclamation of the "truth" that he has suddenly discovered.

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