Webmasters clamp ‘can prevent libel’

New rules asking webmasters to register their sites with the Information Ministry should not be used to stifle freedom of expression, political activists said yesterday. Some were totally opposed to any registration, saying it could be the beginning of a slippery slope which could lead to further restrictions and unfair legal action to be taken against webmasters.

Others said the registration rule should only be used to prosecute people for libel and similar crimes and that there should not be an attempt by government officials to control the content of websites.

National Democratic Action Society board member Ebrahim Alsayed said this development is the latest in a series of moves designed to stifle the population.

“It follows recent proposed anti-terror, gatherings and political societies laws, which are examples of backward steps being taken following Bahrain’s previous democratic reforms,” he said.

“It fits into a bigger scenario of the government controlling society, limiting freedom of expression, freedom of organisation and the ability of the public to put pressure on it.”

The Internet, said Mr Alsayed, is never regulated directly in countries where people have freedom of speech except when it comes to money laundering, child pornography and other similar crimes.

“But websites themselves are never asked to register with the government. If individuals are libelled or otherwise hurt by a particular website, they should have the opportunity to take the webmasters to court themselves, not the government.”

Al Wefaq Islamic Society president Shaikh Ali Salman said he expected the new regulations to fail because it is impossible to efficiently regulate something as huge as the Internet.

“Websites can be produced from anywhere in the world and it is not realistic to try to control it or limit people’s use of the Internet.

“I think that these rules echo the situation Bahrain was in before its reforms and the mentality of controlling people.”

Shaikh Ali also had objections over such rules coming from a ministry.

“This is a major decision which should not be instituted administratively. It should go through the proper legislative process.”

Al Menbar Democratic Progressive Tribune Society president Dr Hasan Madan said he wouldn’t mind if the regulations are limited to registering, but the government should not try to control the content of websites.

“They should also not make conditions and prevent people from starting websites by not granting licences,” he said.

Dr Madan also said it would be better if such a policy were introduced after new Press and publications laws are brought into effect.

“The current Press laws are outdated and do not meet the needs of the public.”

Al Meethaq National Action Charter Society board member Dr Yousef Mashal said he thought a mountain was being made out of a molehill.

He says people who are not using the Internet to spread lies should not be afraid of registering their names.

“There are more important issues to discuss, including laws regarding political organisation, anti-terror laws and the Free Trade Agreement, which still haven’t come into effect,” continued Dr Mashal.

“You shouldn’t be afraid of anything as long as your actions are within the laws. If you want to criticise the government, do it openly. There is no need to do it from behind walls,” he said.

Dr Mashal said the webmasters’ freedom of speech is not being stifled simply by asking them to register their sites.

“They can continue to do what they are doing as long as they are not harming third parties or the country,” he noted.

National Democratic Assembly president Abdulla Hashim said the registration of websites should be used only to prevent crimes such as libel.

He said the new regulation should also not be used as a means by the government to stop people from putting pressure on it to address their concerns.

“Internet sites have done much good, but they have done much damage also by libelling people, swearing at them and otherwise damaging their reputations,” he said.

“These proposed registration procedures should be used to make people use the Internet in a civilised manner but if we find that the government is trying to use it to limit people’s freedoms, we would stand against it immediately.”

Bahrain Internet Society president Waheed Al Balushi said the public should differentiate between registering their websites and censorship.

“The Internet is still a relatively new thing and although it is not yet standard practice to register websites, there is a growing movement towards this,” he said

“Freedom of speech shouldn’t mean that you can write anything about anything because many people are using the Internet to harm others.”

Mr Al Balushi said the World Intellectual Property Organisation is also promoting the registration of websites for the sake of protecting intellectual works.
GDN :: Tariq Khonji :: 26 Apr ’05

Freedom of Speech my big toe!