A Bahraini blogger charged with libel for criticizing a cabinet minister on his Web site has told The Jerusalem Post that freedom of expression is under threat in the Gulf nation.
In December, Mahmood Al-Yousif, who runs a popular English-language blog known as “Mahmood’s Den” (www.mahmood.tv) was accused of libeling Bahrain’s Agriculture Minister Mansoor Bin Rajab after he found fault with a statement made by the minister.
Yousif’s trial was set to begin on Tuesday in the High Criminal Court in Manama, Bahrain’s capital, but the case was adjourned until May 8 after the presiding judge had to absent himself for undisclosed “personal reasons.”
“Bahrain is a very politicized society, maybe the most in the Gulf,” Yousif told the Post via e-mail. “Indications over the last few months suggest that there is a concerted effort by the government to stifle freedoms of expression, even though its own constitution defends them.”
He said 13 cases had been brought against Bahraini journalists in the past two years, and that the charges against him indicated that the government had now turned its attention to the Internet.
“Now that the government has cowed print and other media outlets, they are trying the same technique to silence criticism on the Internet,” Yousif said. “However, they fail to realize that there is no ‘big red switch’ which can be pressed to ‘stop the presses’ of the Internet.”
“They can take me to court,” he said, “they can continue to harass us, but for every one they do imprison or harass, tens of others naturally appear!”
Asked if he thought Israel and Bahrain would one day enjoy normal bilateral relations, Yousif responded, “Of course! Israel is here to stay.”
“I have no qualms with the Israeli people,” he said, “and I hope to have the opportunity to visit ancient sites within it in my lifetime.”
He added, however, that normal relations between the two countries “are completely contingent on the fair solution of the Arab-Israeli problem. I unfortunately do not see any other way of Bahrain unilaterally forging a relationship outside of those bounds.”
Yousif said the government’s efforts to curb freedom of speech were generating a mounting sense of discomfort with the regime among the Bahraini public.
“The frustration with our leadership is at a boiling point,” he said, “and these harassing techniques are symptomatic of the leadership’s realization of this fact.”
He was also critical of the West, which he said had chosen to “look away from the various transgressions they clearly witness in our countries” out of fear that pressing Arab regimes to democratize would bring about the rise of Islamic fundamentalist forces in their stead.
The West, he said, and “particularly the USA, is looking away while a complete abrogation of civic responsibility disappears from the Arab leaders’ vision, and they are back to repressive regimes throughout the region.”