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Bahrain Special: How Regime Supporters Used a New York Times Reporter (Again) To Denounce the Opposition

Almost three weeks ago, in a feature and a follow-up, we revealed how three supporters of the Bahraini regime, amidst tension and clashes around the Bahrain Grand Prix, introduced themselves as the "silent majority" to three Formula 1 journalists. The men, with a great deal of success, promoted the monarchy, especially Crown Prince Salman, as the symbol of moderation and reform while characterising protesters as a violent, misguided, Iran-led minority.

Two days before that, we considered how Souad Mekhennet of The New York Times --- allowed, unlike other journalists such as her colleague like Nicholas Kristof, into the country --- proclaimed, "Bahrain Holds Grand Prix, Keeping Protesters at Bay". Indeed, she went farther, portraying the opposition as fragmented, with one faction denouncing another for the use of violence. She portrayed activist Zainab Alkhawaja --- now in prison like her father and fellow activist, hunger striker Abdulhadi Alkhawaja --- as a supporter of that violence: "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.”

But could this propaganda success be extended by merging the two strands? Could Mekhennet, representing America's best-known newspaper, be introduced to people who would reinforce her denunciation of the opposition?

From Tuesday's New York Times, "Losing Faith With Protesters in Bahrain", written by Souad Mekhennet:

No member of this trio ever planned on staying on this island. They had come either to visit friends or to work a one-year contract in the Gulf state.

But they never left — and now they offer an interesting view of the stirrings in Bahrain, which unlike any of the other Arab states affected by uprisings in the past year, has a majority population of expatriates.

The three unmarried, childless Western women — Carol Melrose, a 56-year-old Briton; Abby Navarre, a 53-year-old Briton; and Sarah, a 29-year-old American who asked not to be further identified — said life before the uprisings had been relaxed....

Now, they are caught between the government and demonstrators. At the outset, they said, they were very sympathetic toward the protesters because they had witnessed discrimination against Shiites applying for jobs or housing....

The women have all changed their opinion in recent months. “We all know that the protesters have their issues, and no expatriate is denying it,” said Ms. Navarre. “But the king has already started with reforms and at this stage, the protesters should get back to their life and give the government a chance to implement the reforms.”

As with other supposedly impromptu interviews such as last month's encounter with the Formula 1 journalists, the speakers praise the monarchy, "All three women...welcomed the king’s initiative to bring in an independent commission. 'You don’t have many leaders who would accept doing this,' Sarah said."

They, with Mekhennet as the scribe, portray protesters as the cause of conflict, with security forces only acting in response:

All three women live close to Budaiya Road, where the largest opposition group, Al Wefaq, holds its mostly authorized and peaceful rallies. When these rallies end, younger people, who claim to be part of the February 14th movement, sometimes turn violent. Stones, Molotov cocktails and, in some cases, gasoline bombs fly in the direction of the police, who answer with abundant tear gas and, protesters say, birdshot....

“Imagine in the U.S. protesters would throw Molotov cocktails and burn tires in D.C. or New York. What do you think would the police do?” [Sarah] said.

And Carol, Abby, and Sarah effectively blame the opposition --- rather than, as other analysts have evaluated, the regime --- for fostering sectarian conflict:

All three said one reason they had stayed in Bahrain was its openness — a Gulf state with Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, synagogues, Hindu and Baha’i temples.

“We never used to hear the question if someone was Shiite or Sunni, but now you can even hear children talking about it,” Ms. Melrose said....

They said the gap between Shiites and others has grown. Ms. Melrose worries that the next generation of Bahrainis will grow up with the idea that Shiites and Sunnis are different. “It is too bad to see that this multicultural society gets ruined,” she said.

As we noted in previous articles, there is nothing untoward about an individual in Bahrain offering his/her perspective and opinion. It is a far different matter, however, to present that individual view through an interview like this as that of the no-longer-silent majority, ignoring or stigmatising the opinions of others.

In this case, however, Mekhennet adds a significant distortion. Her dramatic device is that the three women have had a road-to-Manama conversion, once supporting the opposition but now seeing the light:

At the outset, they said, they were very sympathetic toward the protesters because they had witnessed discrimination against Shiites applying for jobs or housing.

“I felt it is good that the protesters were demanding more rights,” said Ms. Navarre, who works in real estate and, like Ms. Melrose, has lived in Bahrain for more than 20 years....

“Last year, I had sympathies for some of the protesters’ demands, but now I am asking myself, ‘What is this about now?”’ said Sarah, who has worked for six years at a hotel.

Again, a perspective that should be heard and noted. Except, for at least one of the women, Mekhennet could easily have discovered that it is a deception.

Abigail Navarre --- supposedly the advocate last year of protesters' "demanding more rights" --- wrote on Twitter on 5 March 2011 about the centre of the demonstrations:

The regime had cleared the site, killing several people, more than two weeks earlier, only for the protesters to re-establish the base under the iconic Pearl Monument. On 16 March, backed by a Saudi-led military intervention, Bahrain's security forces "got the filthy squalid tents camps removed" for good, amidst further deaths and injuries.

In March 2011, Navarre had a more immediate concern than the fate of the protesters:

However, besides speaking to a New York Times reporter, Navarre was recently prompted by the Formula 1 Grand Prix, to make an intervention on politics. She wrote about activists, "I can't believe all the rubbish that is out there on Twitter from the likes of Nabeel Rajab and Maryam Al Khawaja. I wish Bahrain would deport them and take away their nationality/passport." She chided CNN's Amber Lyon, a leading target of vocal regime supporters for her "biased" coverage, "When are you going to wake up and see you have been siding with the wrong people?...Grow up Amber....Go spew your venom on another country."

And then there is another sleight-of-hand in Mekhennet's article, moving "human rights" to one side of the political ledger: "Ms. Melrose said she is now volunteering in the Gulf-European Center for Human Rights, an organization sanctioned by the king."

Mekhennet does note that Melrose's interest in rights was not prompted by the political situation but by her personal circumstances: "She is prohibited from leaving Bahrain because of debts that she said were dumped on her by a former business partner. The travel ban means she has lost her residency and cannot work to repay her debts." Melrose's Twitter messages, including appeals to Formula 1 drivers, are almost exclusively on this issue.)

However, Mekhennet apparently never looks at the activities of the Gulf-European Center for Human Rights. If she had, she would have discovered that it suddenly appeared with a website registered in late 2010, just before the start of the protests, but still "Under Construction".

Mekhennet would have found that, by the end of March 2011, the Center was working --- along with another regime-backed group, Bahrain Human Rights Watch Center --- to reverse, as Mekhennet does in her article, the human rights issues: it declared it would monitor and controls the opposition's "violations against Bahraini citizens, residents and expats".

And the journalist might have noted a recent shift in the GECHR's activity, in line with Melrose's concern:

The Gulf European Centre for Human Rights (GECHR) says it is "asking serious questions" about international banks that use such travel bans to stop foreigners leaving the country.

Faisal Fulad, director general of GECHR, said: "It is very concerning that any customer, who has a loan or a credit card with a bank in Bahrain, is at risk of being travel banned for non-payment, regardless of whether they have extenuating circumstances or not."

Instead of considering any of this, Mekhennet's priority is to put Melrose's personal concern into the proper, broader perspective: "After 21 years in Bahrain, she said she sometimes would like to let the protesters know there are other people whose situation is perhaps worse, since non-Bahrainis have no rights to welfare."

We will never know if this interview was a set-up on behalf of the regime, the chance outcome of Mekhennet's approaches to Bahrainis and expatriates, or a combination of the two. (Beyond her quotes in Mekhennet's article, the third woman, "Sarah", remains elusive.)

But we do know what we are supposed to take away from the interview. These three expatriate women, not the protesters, are the ones who have suffered in Bahrain. These women, supporters of the regime's purported "reforms", are the true voices of reason and moderation. Rather than "siding with the wrong people", journalists and all of us should side with Carol, Abby, and Sarah. Mekhennet concludes:

Cases like hers are beginning to sour expatriates on the protesters and on Bahrain, Ms. Navarre said. “I would like to tell them, ‘Look at people like Carol. After working for more than 20 years, she got nothing. But is she violent against policemen? Is she burning tires?”’

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