Bahrain's "anti-porn" campaign heightens censorship

Billed as an action against pornographic websites and public morality, the recent wave of Internet censorship currently sweeping through Bahrain is nothing new to dissidents, human rights workers and activists in the country. But rights-groups in Bahrain say the situation is “getting out of hand,” targeting a even wider spectrum of groups, from human rights to religious to political.
Censorship in Bahrain increases, new minister Mai Al-Khalifa has the last word

BEIRUT, MARCH 23, 2009 (MENASSAT) – In January, local newspapers in Bahrain made public a ministerial order by Bahrain’s new Minister of Media and Culture, Sheikha Mai bint Mohammed Al Khalifa, that called on telecommunications companies and Internet service providers to tighten their measures in preventing access to websites previously banned by the ministry.

The resolution read, “Lifting the block on any site should only be on the instructions of the minister herself."

Al-Khalifa's campaign is being billed as an action against, "pornographic websites and public morality,” but activists cite several examples of websites that have been censored or banned, which fall outside of the minister's edict, including those of human rights, religious, and political organizations.

According to rights-groups, hundreds of websites have been blocked by the government on the grounds that they "incite violence," the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, BCHR, reported.

Nabeel Rajab of BCHR, whose website is on Al-Khalifa’s blacklist, told MENASSAT earlier this year that the majority of the sites blocked in Bahrain are dealing with human rights and political issues in the country and in “village chat forums.”

Sites that are currently inaccessible in Bahrain include independent newspaper Bahrain Times, the online current events forum Montadayat, and the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI).

Facebook censorship

The Bahraini authorities appear to have also turned their attention to social media, in an attempt to block dissident voices.

In a recent press release, BCHR accused Al-Khalifa of expanding the censorship campaign to social networking sites such as Facebook. The organization “discovered” that the national authorities had removed postings on Facebook pages belonging to Bahraini rights groups that reported on the human rights situation in the country.

Among the reports that mysteriously disappeared from BCHR’s page were Amnesty International's recent report on human rights defenders in the Middle East and North Africa, an AlJazeeratalk report on human rights violations in Bahrain, and a statement from the BCHR on the prosecution of Bahraini journalist Lamees Dhaif.

BCHR said it believes the motives behind the censoring of the “dissident entries” on Facebook is the “realization of the Bahraini authorities that this social site has extensive accessibility and distribution.”

Rajab also personally attacked Al-Khalifa in response to BCHR’s recent Facebook ordeal and accused the minister - often labeled as a “liberal" - of being the chief architect behind the censorship campaign.

“We are dismayed that this war is spearheaded by Mai Al-Khalifa, a lady modeled as liberal and presented with many medals in recognition of her support to culture and liberalism,” stated Rajab.

Not just politics and porn targeted

A Bahraini human rights activist speaking on the condition of anonymity told MENASSAT that the current censorship campaign is “getting out of hand” with regular sites that are unrelated to porn and politics falling victim to the government’s censorship campaign.

The activist added that this development has led to much frustration among Bahrainis.

“You should note that the outcry is amongst all citizens, even average business owners who rely on the web. There are some web services, like galleries, that are blocked despite being entirely unrelated to proxies or porn or local politics. We demand that a full investigation is put in place on how and why all these sites are blocked and not only those that are either porn-related or relevant to the authorities,” the activist told MENASSAT.

The activist agreed with the claims made by BCHR that the censorship campaign has expanded to social media sites, saying that authorities have been blocking Facebook links since the beginning of March.

“We can't even share articles on our Facebook profiles, which is something I do all the time,” said the activist.

Activist crackdowns

Along with censorship, Bahraini activists are facing gloomy days as several have been sent to court for defamation suits.

The most recent was Abdul Hadi Al-Khawaja, former president of BCHR who currently works for the rights group Front Line. Al-Khawaja was accused of "instigating hatred and disrespect," in a speech he made in January, where he had lashed out against the Bahraini authorities, calling the government an "oppressive regime," that "plundered public lands, degraded the people, and used mercenaries against them.”

Human Rights Watch has reportedly called on Bahrain to drop all charges against Al-Khawaja and lift the travel ban authorities have imposed on him.

Legal suits have also been filed against human rights activists Abduljalil Alsingace, Hassan Mushaima and Mohamed Habib Al-Muqdad, "in relation to their publishing activities and speeches about the
political situation in Bahrain,” reports the London-based Article 19.

The three men are due in court on March 24 to respond to the 18 charges filed against them. One of the charges is related to Bahrain’s Article 6 of the Terrorism Code of 2006 and carries a penalty of life imprisonment.

In a press release today, HRW reported a "serious use of flaws" in the criminal trial of Mushaima, leader of the political opposition group Haq, and said that all coerced testimony in his trial and in that of 34 others "should be withdrawn and that those not charged with a genuine criminal offense should be freed."

Meanwhile, HRW has reported legal suits against two Bahraini journalists, Lamees Dhaif of "Al Waqt" and Maryam al-Sherooqi of "Al Wasat.”

Dhaif is supposedly facing three years behind bars for writing an article series on the Bahraini court system's failures in family law. Al-Sherooqi has been charged with "insulting and degrading the Civil Service Bureau" for exposing discriminatory hiring practices at the Bureau.