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No Tolerance for Free Press or Thought

No Tolerance for Free Press or Thought

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Bahrain is not unique in it’s depressed ranking on the just released RSF Press Freedom Index. Many have suffered greatly depressed rankings due to opportunistic and knee-jerk reaction to malleable definitions of terrorism, readily penalising the press, photojournalists, bloggers and anyone with a dissenting voice.

This year, Middle Eastern countries have further moved down the index and now occupy the bottom of the rankings. This is no surprise, as barely a day goes by without someone somewhere is imprisoned for exercising their freedom of speech. This cause is of course contested locally due to laws which engender and entrench criminality of free speech; hence, those incarcerated are classified as common criminals, rather than prisoners of conscience. The knock-on effects of this repression are manifested in the glaringly slow economies, rising poverty, disenfranchisement of the population, death of the middle class, flight of capital, absence of foreign direct investment all leading to further civil strife in all of these countries.

Optimistically, there is literally no where for these countries to go but up. They can’t possibly fall even further. And what it would take for them to climb the index and allow their citizens to finally live with dignity requires hard work and sacrifices still.

I’m optimistic that political leaderships in the Middle East would now be compelled to act positively. If for nothing else but to improve the economy. The time to start is of course so far gone in history, but starting even now is better than doing nothing at all. Because in 50 years time, the whole Middle East will be destitute and over 500 million people will be seeking refuge in the West and other more verdant countries than the deserts they will want to leave behind.

Here the full RSF Press Freedom Index of 2017.

Here’s a short snapshot of Bahrain’s path so far:

2002: 67
2003: 117
2004: 143
2005: 123
2006: 111
2007: 118
2008: 96
2009: 119
2010: 144
2011/12: 173
2013: 165
2014: 163
2015: 164
2016: 162
2017: 164

The scale is out of 180 countries ranked.

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The Hostility of the Middle East to Freedom of Expression

The Hostility of the Middle East to Freedom of Expression

Here’s a riddle: if you heard the following, which country of region or the world would immediately jump up at you?

A female artist and activist serving a 12-year prison sentence is facing additional charges, including “indecent conduct,” after shaking her male lawyer’s hand.

South America?
China?
Belarus?
Georgia?
USA?

No. I bet the region that popped up in your mind was the Middle East. As to the specific country, it most probably was either Saudi Arabia or Iran. Okay, I’ll throw in Afghanistan in there too.

Atena Farghadani

The correct answer, of course in this case, is Iran.

Why is this region so afflicted with this disease of needing to control everyone and mould them into unthinking and unfeeling automatons beyond their own officially sanctified propriety? Aren’t the perpetually descending freedom indices enough to jolt the region’s officials to a state of utter alarm coupled with a clear realisation that the people of this region have had enough Big Brotherly oversight and repression and they’re rebelling against the chains? Don’t they realise that peoples’ aspirations have now changed beyond their recognition and broke out of their moulds? That what people now want is the plentiful bounty of choice that is available to their fellow human beings elsewhere? And that the continued application of unfair and unjust laws that curtail personal freedoms will achieve nothing but an all out ugly rebellion that might well lead to civil wars?

The Middle East is by almost any reckoning the world’s worst region for freedom of expression. Reporters Without Borders, a press freedom lobby, puts war-torn Syria 177th out of 180 countries on its latest annual ranking, in 2014. Iran is 173rd, Sudan 172nd, Yemen 167th, Saudi Arabia 164th. The highest any of the region’s countries make it is 91st, with Kuwait, which has a democracy of sorts. According to the Pew Research Centre, a think-tank, as of 2012, 14 of 20 Middle Eastern countries criminalise blasphemy and 12 of 20 make apostasy—leaving Islam—an offence. [Unholy Silence – The Economist]

Almost every country in the Middle East imprisons political activists, artists, journalists, writers, bloggers, and anyone else who dares to oppose official views or simply criticises any official body using draconian and malleable laws that will ensure their silencing and also make them examples to deter others from treading their paths.

The ludicrous story of the Iranian artist Atena Farghadani embodies all that ails this region of the world. She expressed her opinion of the political situation in her country by drawing Iranian parliamentarians as animals. That opinion got her more than twelve years behind bars in the country’s top security prison. When she shook the hand of her male lawyer, they slapped an additional prison sentence for public indecency and they both can receive over 70 lashes for their courtesy on top of the prison sentence.

“The laws on the books in Iran are a kind of arsenal or tool kit always available for use by the authorities in their efforts to suppress any form of expression they don’t approve of,” Elise Auerbach, Iran country specialist at Amnesty International, told The Huffington Post.

How are these laws allowed to be legislated in the first place? How can parliamentarians continue to have any respect for themselves after allowing such legislation to pass? Don’t their conscience and honour question their actions or lack thereof?

Of course, the practical effects of this suppression are manifold; chief amongst them is the killing of innovation and creativity. People cannot be creative and innovative if they’re continuously looking over their shoulders and censoring themselves. This creates such a corrosive and unproductive environment which enforces subservience to foreign products, workforce and talent. This situation will ultimately unbalance the very foundations of a sustainable society and put whole countries at the mercy of the external powers they are beholden to. The local disenfranchised population will of course lose hope, lose their kinship with their own country of birth and might well stand on the sidelines while its resources continue to be plundered because they would be unsure whether they are empowered to act to protect the resources. Under these conditions, there is no doubt that governments will ultimately lose the support of their own people and chaos will ensue.

The great Mark Twain once said that “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it”.  Judging by the acceleration in arbitrary arrests, the fashioning of even more opaque laws whose sole purpose is for their use against any form of opposition or dissent, the further choking of freedoms of expression and penalising almost any form of criticism, that governmental support across the Middle East is declining to a level that open rebellion – small as it may currently be – is begining to be witnessed on a daily basis.

There is a way out of this, of course. Paradoxically, Bahrain once provided the guiding light for how things can be reversed and corrected. Just look at what its RSF Press Freedom Index was in 2002 and compare it to every year since. What did Bahrain do in 2001 that warranted that huge increase in its press freedom ranking and all other freedom of expression indices?

Here’s a brief, courtesy of 2002 report from Freedom House:

Bahrain’s political rights rating improved from 7 to 6, and its civil liberties rating improved from 6 to 5, because of political reforms that set the stage for the establishment of an elected legislature, abolished emergency laws and courts, released political prisoners and allowed exiles to return, granted nationality to bidoon (stateless peoples), and improved political debate and freedom of association.

Sheikh Hamad ibn Isa al-Khalifa ended almost a decade of civil unrest in February 2001, when he presented Bahrainis with the opportunity to vote in a referendum on a new national charter. The charter, which calls for the establishment of a partially elected legislature, an independent judiciary, political rights for women, equality for all citizens, and a body to investigate public complaints, addresses the key grievances of Shiite-led opposition groups. Ninety percent of Bahrainis turned out to vote in the referendum, and 98 percent of them approved the new charter.

Although the 2002 Freedom House index for Bahrain rates it as “Not Free”, it does recognise that some solid steps have taken place that warranted that upward change in ranking. In fact, the effect of those changes were clearly seen from 2003 – 2009 when the country’s status changed to “Partly Free”, which is a big achievement.

From a practical level, I remember the heady days of 2001 when people stood up straighter, looked each other in the eye, had fruitful debates without resorting to hushed tones and continuously looking over their shoulders and political lectures and workshops were aplenty. We actually started to understand what “debate” actually was rather than resort to the usual accusations of treason, or lobbying choice epithets at people we disagree with. The whole country was abuzz and business was booming. Everyone had an air of accomplishment and a sense of worth and pride.

That feeling is a universal requirement for a healthy and effective Middle East. Unfortunately it has disappeared, or at least, it got lost in the interim. For our own survival and our much needed growth as effective nations, we need to get that sense of self-worth back.

How the people of this region might go about this will not be easy. The road will require sacrifices to re-establish trust between all parties. Shared goals need to be set that have national interest fully in sight and which transcend personal aggrandisement and selfish benefit. I personally believe that this can and must be achieved. I can’t give up on more than 400 million people and neither can the world for that matter.

We all individually have a part to play, no matter how small, to achieve that much required correction to rejoin a world, without terrorism, wars or strife. We owe it to ourselves and future generations to try.

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RSF Press Freedom Index 2010 released

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And there are no surprises, as far as this region of the world is concerned, and there most certainly is not a surprise as to how our own little island faired:

Press Freedom Index 2010

Country201020092008200720062005200420032002
Bahrain1441199611811112314311767
Kuwait87606163738510310278
Saudi Arabia157163161148161154159156125
Qatar1219474798090104115-
Emirates8786696577100137122-
Oman124106123n/an/an/an/a152n/a

With the current subjugation of various forms of freedoms of expression in this country, and the concerted effort to shut off any form of opposition – leading in some cases to incarceration, I would not at all be surprised if our index in 2011 slips even further than our giant neighbours Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Well done.

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M.Report S01E26 – Friends and an Interview with RSF

The last two days were very fruitful. I have had the privilege of interacting with an excellent group of people whose main concern is to share their views with the world, and expose the wrongs in their societies in order for those to be addressed and corrected. Although I cannot say that the correction has been effected by society and/or governments, but at least they have been brought out in the open and the hope is that they will be tackled, ultimately.

Today’s presentations were a bit more technical in nature where we discussed how to popularise your blog, how to use the available tools and sites to spread your message and how to monetise your efforts.

RSF's Clothilde Le Coz I also took the opportunity to interview Clothilde Le Coz, of RSF’s Internet Freedom Desk who shared her views and explained her role in the organisation. She also provided some insights on how RSF goes about its business.

Now that the formal part of the workshop is over, and the M.Report has been uploaded, it’s time to shower, change and go out to have dinner in the world famous Rick’s Café with some new and old friends. Should be quite fun!

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RSF gets a bit too Bolshy

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It looks like there is a new admin for this area for RSF… there must be, as their latest press release about Bahrain is a bit, well, unduly strong. I would have thought that they could be a little bit more politically cognizant and temper it down a bit.

Saying something like:

Determined to oppose the continuation of your current Internet policies, we hope you will take account of this new request to let your subjects express themselves online and allow the Internet to develop freely. We remind you that we already told you of our concern in April 2005 about your government’s adoption of a regulation requiring websites dealing with Bahrain to register with the information ministry.

my emphasis

will most definitely and resolutely burn any remaining bridges between the Bahraini government and RSF, rendering any good that RSF hopes to achieve to be close to zero.

I am not saying that our government’s policy as far as censorship (Internet or otherwise) is correct, far from it, in fact I totally oppose it, but for RSF to go to this level of Bolshiness is immature, inconsiderate and politically incorrect.

Much more important than that, they do our cause no good whatsoever by isolating themselves in such a matter.

I guess this is one situation where a champion turned into an ogre?

hat tip: Dr. Abduljalil Al-Singace

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2007 Press Freedom Survey

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It’s that time again; RSF released it’s 2007 Press Freedom Survey and Bahrain again does not fair well… their map of Bahrain is resolutely black in this area. Here’s what they have to say about us:

The monarchy’s progress towards democracy has not included decriminalising press offences and the regime continues to control the media.

The democratic reforms of Sheikh Hamad, a Sunni Muslim, since he came to power in 1999, quickly faded before the demands of the country’s Shiite majority for a voice. Journalists are increasingly critical of the regime, but the press laws, which allow prison sentences from between six months and five years, prevent normal working conditions, so self-censorship is still the best way to keep one’s job.

The supreme court banned the media on 4 October 2006 from mentioning in any way a scandal known as Bandargate, involving the royal family and some politicians, that led to the deportation of Sudanese-born British citizen Salah al-Bandar for distributing a detailed report on electoral fraud. Hussein Mansour, of the daily paper Al Mithak, and Mohamed al-Othman, of the daily Al Wasat, received anonymous phone threats in October for writing about the scandal.

The government had said in April 2005 that all Internet websites dealing with Bahrain would have to register with the information ministry, but the new rule, which was criticised by Reporters Without Borders, has not been implemented. However, access to many sites and political blogs was barred in October 2006, a month before parliamentary elections. The regime also censored online publications that mentioned Bandargate.
RSF :: 2007 Press Freedom Survey

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2006 Press Freedom Index released

There is marginal improvement in this year’s Bahrain Press Freedom Index released by RSF. In 2006 we gained a few places up to 111, but to put this rank in perspective, I have compiled the following table to show how bad our position is compared to Kuwait, the Emirates and Qatar:

Press Freedom Index 2006

Country20062005200420032002
Bahrain11112314311767
Kuwait738510310278
Saudi Arabia161154159156125
Qatar8090104115-
Emirates77100137122-
Oman---152-

What affected our rank in 2006 is mainly the vicious attack by the Ministry of Information on websites and blogs which it arbitrarily blocked without any recourse to the judicial authorities. Their are about 20 sites blocked now (listed in the sidebar) most probably due to their political or (ir)religious content, thereby, the Ministry continues to try to control our thoughts through the use of telex-age modes of thinking in the Internet 2.0 age!

What can we deduce from these rankings now?

Very basically, it seems that a “non-democratic” countries like Qatar and the UAE are outstripping us consistently. Their rankings are improving year on year. The only other democracy on this side of the Gulf, Kuwait, is also exhibiting wonderful improvements over the last 5 years. While we, in Bahrain, the supposed democracy that was once lauded by the Almighty Bush are continuously on the decrease, our current position of 111 is no where near the Euphoric rank of 67 achieved in 2002.

We have a lot to do to regain that rightful position, and the formula for re-achieving that position is rather simple in theory and practice:

  • remove the current Press & Publications Law by Decree number 47 of 2002
  • remove jail penalties on journalists and freedoms of expression
  • ensure that only the independent judicial authorities have the power to shut down papers and judge libel cases rather than the Minister of Information
  • remove the restriction on Internet sites completely, any blocking attempt is futile anyway as it is extremely easy to go beyond a block in the first place using simple and available tools

Is anyone listening?

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One more site blocked in Bahrain

It used to be just 9 that were blocked:

and now, it appears that someone who is really shaking in his boots and deems it very necessary to protect us from ourselves and protect the country from those nefarious people hell bent on toppling the government has done the right thing™ and blocked…

Well done! I am sure the blocking of these sites will contribute greatly to the country’s standing in the Freedom of the Press index, the Human Rights index (which Bahrain actually is on that council in the UN!!) and will also assist Shaikha Haya bint Rashed Al-Khalifa in her role as the PRESIDENT of the United Nations and gain her and Bahrain even more respect and credibility to continue to be in that role.

Of course, that brainfartist probably doesn’t know that it is becoming easier every day to unblock sites, no matter what their contents are.

Welllll done!

But then one must ask the question… who’s next?

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Going South

If you’re already wet, would being sprayed make you even wetter? What if you jumped in the pool when you’re already wet, would that make you wetter? Of course not. So what if Bahrain once again went south in its ranking in the Press Freedom Index for 2006? Okay, it’s just a few ranking postions: from 155 in 2004 to 156 in 2005 and 158 in 2006… the only bright side of this that I can think of is that we have reached bottom, and the only way is up, or get covered in silt and wait a few million years to make something worthwhile of our existence!

Let’s see what the full 2005 report says about us (pdf) and revel in its praise:

BAHRAIN
STATUS: NOT FREE

LEGAL ENVIRONMENT: 24
POLITICAL ENVIRONMENT: 26
ECONOMIC ENVIRONMENT: 22
TOTAL SCORE: 72

The constitution allows for the right to press freedom, excluding opinions that undermine the fundamental beliefs of Islam or those that promote discord or sectarianism. This right is restricted further in practice. The 2002 Press Law catalogs a variety of press crimes, severely curtailing the range of topics the press is permitted to cover. Though suspended
soon after promulgation, the law continues to be enforced at the government’s discretion. Nonetheless, the press has grown bolder in its criticism of government policies and other controversial issues in recent years. In May, the Chamber of Deputies proposed a draft law to create an Information Council that would increase transparency and access to information. As of December, the draft had not been approved.

Internet freedom came under increased pressure in Bahrain in 2005. Despite boasting a liberal telecom environment, the Bahraini government does filter some content, monitoring emails and blocking access to several political opposition websites, In February the government arrested the moderator of the web log www.bahrainonline.com, Ali Abdul Imam, along with two web technicians for disseminating defamatory material through the site’s discussion forum. Released after several weeks amid protest, Abdul Imam’s arrest was quickly followed by a decree by the Ministry of Information requiring all Bahraini website moderators to register with the ministry within three months, a move decried by human rights advocates as a means to monitor and stifle freedom of expression on the web. The government is not the only threat to press freedom. For example, a Muslim cleric threatened the editor-in-chief of the daily Al Ayam and led a massive protest after the paper published political cartoons depicting the Ayatollah Khamenei and offending many Shi’ites in Bahrain.

Print media are privately owned, but they usually exercise self-censorship in articles covering sensitive topics and are often issued government ‘directives’ on how to report certain stories. The government continues to own and operate almost all radio and television stations in the country, and these outlets largely conform to the government position. In October, the first private radio station began broadcasting music and entertainment, but does not cover news or current affairs. Broadcast media from neighboring countries are available, however, and the number of households with access to satellite channels continues to grow. Saudi-owned entertainment satellite channel MBC2 has broadcast from Bahrain since 2003. In 2004, the government lifted a two-year ban on correspondents from the Qatar-based satellite channel Al-Jazeera.
Freedom House :: MENA 2006 Freedom of the Press report :: pdf

In a recent press release, the same organisation said this about this whole region, and I cannot agree with its conclusion more:

Despite overall improvements in press freedom in the Middle East and North Africa over the last several years, the region continues to rank the lowest for press freedoms in the world, according to a major study released today by Freedom House. However, there are a number of countries that are close to an upgrade from Not Free to Partly Free status, if a few key reforms are implemented.

Generally, media in the region remain constrained by extremely restrictive legal environments in most countries. Most problematic to media freedom are the laws criminalizing libel and defamation and prohibiting any insult to monarchs and other rulers, as well as emergency legislation that remains in place which hampers the ability of journalists to write freely.
Freedom House :: 27 Apr ’06

I hope our exalted MPs, especially the bearded ones are listening.

This is what you (the MPs) take with you to your graves.. you had a real chance in your lives at least to attempt to make a difference, and you continue to squander it.

Well done Bahrain. I would like, on this very auspicious occasion, to congratulate both the Ministry of Information and the Bahraini Parliament for these reports and new rankings.

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Not again!

Can anyone guess what Bahrain’s press freedom index is going to be for 2006? No?

Well let’s look at the trend, so we can realistically predict the future:

2002 = 67
2003 = 117
2004 = 167
2005 = 123

Let’s also consider other factors that might assist us in this prediction; emoodz broke the story on Wednesday that a number of websites appeared to be blocked, this was later confirmed by Batelco, the only ISP on the island and referred us to the Ministry of Information. Of course, no one had any information at the Ministry of Information!

This morning, the GDN had an article that the block was far more widespread than we thought, the GDN reports FORTY sites blocked without even bothering to tell the webmasters why they were blocked in the first place. And typical of a Ministry of Information official, he blatantly told the reporter that he could only look into this issue when he “gets back to work on Saturday!” What cheek. I thought that people in that kind of powerful position at one of the (supposedly) most important ministries would immediately jump on the situation and get it fixed there and then, but no. The world has to stop until his excellency goes back to work after the weekend, clears his in-tray and then maybe, just maybe look into this “annoyance.” Let’s forget the fact that Bahrain’s reputation internationally will have once again been dragged in the mud.. let’s not screw up our weekend, which is much more important.

So what are the contents of some of these sites? They’re run of the mill village sites discussing their affairs and yes some do go into political debates which sometimes turn unsavory, but so what? Democracy isn’t peachy nor is it clean, and people have the right to say what they feel, it’s better than lobbing rocks at police cars isn’t it?

And why resort once again to such draconian methods as blocking sites? I suspect that the next step is to drag those 40 webmasters in front of the public prosecutor and throw them in prison for a few days so that they would behave themselves, right?

I’m just fed up of this rubbish, this continuous attempt at shutting people up, this continuous incitement to violence by the very government organ that is supposed to be used to spread the good democratic concepts and “inform” people of their rights and duties in a democratic society.

I suggest that we find out who the actual person who authorised this latest fiasco and publish his name in bold letters as the real enemy of the people. He is not alone in this for sure, but he certainly will have contributed to the reduction of our rank once again to something beyond 170 for the next report.

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