Bahrain Special: How British Government Helped Regime Denounce Press Freedom...on World Press Freedom Day
Written by Joanna Paraszczuk and Scott Lucas
“News is something somebody doesn't want printed; all else is advertising” --- William Randall Hearst
I suspect George Orwell would be impressed.
The headline on the British Government's website appears straight-forward: "British Embassy Bahrain Marks World Press Freedom Day". The introduction sounds promising: "The British Embassy asked Bahraini journalists and commentators to write a brief article outlining their views on the freedom of expression in Bahrain."
So who would the British government select to address this important issue and what would the answers be?
Would the British government open a discussion of how Bahrain's mainstream press and broadcasting is almost exclusively pro-regime outlets?
Would it allow comment from or pay tribute to those reporters who have tried to bring alternative views?
Would there be recognition of those journalists who have been refused entry to Bahrain, or asked to leave the country, or those who have been detained, sentenced to prison< terms, or even killed by security forces?
Instead, the British government invited two responses: one from the Editor-in-Chief of a staunch pro-regime newspaper, and the other from an anonymous pro-government "citizen coalition" group.
The first response is from one Anwar Abdulrahman, who emphasizes his support for press freedom --- except when it criticises the Bahraini Government.
The British Embassy --- surprisingly --- offers no introduction or biography for Abdulrahman. In fact, he is Editor-in-Chief of pro-regime Bahraini daily Akhbar Al Khaleej (Gulf News).
Abdulrahman opens his response to the issue of press freedom by teasing the reader with a cryptic soundbite: "Freedom is Not Politics".
But what is Freedom then, according to Abdulrahman? He doesn't really care to elaborate. Instead, he prefers to explain what he believes freedom is not, at least in the hands of "bad people" --- such as the media and particularly that bastion of repression, the Western media:
Never before in mankind’s history has the word ‘freedom’ been so corrupted, so incorrectly and criminally used.
These days, if a person is murdered and a suspect arrested, his or her victim is often overlooked because of misplaced concern for the killer’s rights. What a blinkered, bizarre state of affairs! In fact the western press has virtually merchandised the word "freedom", turning it into almost a blackmailing tool.
During the last two years Bahrain has suffered hugely damaging media-inspired attacks on its image and integrity --- without checks being made as to their veracity --- whether news or comment.
So-called human rights organisations, which unfortunately are largely administered by ex-ideologists and even terrorists, today propagate their own version of the word "freedom", solely to take it away from others.
In a masterly demonstration of doublespeak, Abdulrahman explains that repression is needed because those proclaiming "freedom" are less than human: "As much as beasts cannot be left to roam freely, so in human society the feral element's freedom should be under control."
Clearly, for Abdulrahman, the destruction of words --- at least those critical of the regime --- is a beautiful thing.
The British Embassy's second testimonial comes from a group named "Citizens for Bahrain".
The organisation --- an anonymous, pro-regime coalition, whose actions have included an attack on Amnesty International for criticising the Bahraini regime for shelving a report on human rights abuses.
The group's opening paragraph strikes a different tone from Abdulrahman's message of corrupt and criiminal "freedom":
Freedom of press is a basic necessity in every developing society. No-one wants to live in a place where journalists are questioned for expressing their views.
Well, quite. Who would want to live in a place that pressures journalists for expressing their views?
Except that Citizens of Bahrain align themselves with Abdulrahman's view, positing that such "press freedom" is all very well and good, but only if reporters avoid certain topics, specifically criticism of the Bahraini regime:
Does freedom of press mean that journalists have the right to cause divisions, fabricate stories and be biased in the service of personal political agendas? --- does this serve the public or inform people? Certainly Not!
During the past two years Bahrain has gone through a phase during which misleading information has ripped our society apart through sectarian tension.
Writers took the opportunity of the unrest to promote their political views. Some fabricated stories which supported the opposition; others decided to turn the table and depict a whole segment of the society as traitors --- such was the shameful role played by state television and other loyalist media outlets.
So not exactly a ringing defense of freedom of the press, then.
Notably, Citizens for Bahrain also slip in this tribute to the one man trying to ensure responsible freedom for all Bahrainis: King Hamad.
It is unfortunate but true that freedom of press only came to existence around a decade ago in Bahrain after King Hamad came to power and enshrined these freedoms in the new constitution --- the National Action Charter. Hence, people do not understand the responsibility that comes with this freedom.
So who are Citizens for Bahrain?
Their website appeared about a year ago --- right after the headline controversy about the Bahrain Grand Prix, with police suppression of protests and detention of journalists --- with an eye-catching layout but little information about the "Citizens" involved.
The group says that its consists of prominent businessmen, young Bahrainis, and public figures, but these people are anonymous "to protect themselves from being targeted by non-mainstream opposition groups".
However, its "About Us" language gives some pointers as to where it sees the "enemy":
Don't force us down the path of Egypt and rule by the military. Islamists in the Parliament, and investors and tourists taking flight.
I don't want to class fellow countrymen as Shia and Sunni. All should have equal opportunities. The growing sectarianism and extremism from both sides is alien to Bahrain. Many of my best friends are Shia, but committed to supporting our constitutional monarchy. The media is contributing to the sectarian divide every time it falls into the trap of describing the situation as Sunni against Shia.
Our government has made mistakes, but this doesn't justify the opposition's call for "Death to [the ruling family] Al Khalifah." There has been huge progress by the authorities over the last year; look at how the Bahraini security forces managed the 14 February 2012 protests with minimal force and no serious casualties, despite being attacked by Molotovs and makeshift weapons. The opposition has used abuses by the security forces to justify its own increasingly violent tactics. This is hypocrisy.
And just in case you missed the far-from-neutral point about where blame really lies:
We have a constitutional monarchy committed to reform. We have a liberal, pluralist and open society.
We can criticize our Government openly, but we love our King and trust his vision for reform and a prosperous Bahrain.
Bahrain is a tiny island of tolerance, democratic values and progressive aspirations, in a region submerged in dictatorship, religious extremism and intolerance. If you listen to the opposition’s calls to boycott and stigmatize Bahrain, then you risk stifling this vibrant country and letting loose the forces of anarchy, backwardness and extremism in our beautiful country.
This morning, Citizens for Bahrain is complaining about the reaction to its contribution to World Press Freedom Day: "We were instantly attacked by a whole range of people. Many of these critics only heard what we’d said from a few words on Twitter and instantly decided that we were a bunch of pro-Government thugs."
It is not the journalists who have struggled to work, who in some cases have been put behind bars or six feet under the ground who have been "attacked".
No, it is those who --- speaking about press freedom to denounce it, portraying dissenters and those raising questions as "feral", feigning neutrality to put the monarchy beyond critique --- are the victims.
And --- even worse --- it is the British Government --- despite its ritual disclaimer, "The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position" --- which abetted them.
As Orwell wrote, "Freedom is the right to tell people what they don't want to hear."
The declaration is still valid 70 years later: press freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear without being imprisoned, detained or even killed. It is a shame the British Government, beyond its cavalier attitude to this, prefers to feature the outlets of a regime rather than listening to the people of Bahrain who ask for this freedom.