Bahrain’s Social Media Problem: The Government’s Online to Real Life Attack on Human Rights

Even at the risk of life and citizenship, the same demands for human rights and government reform are today called on by the Bahraini activists. Bahrain was one of the first Arab states to see widespread protests as part of the Arab Spring. The movement involved mass protests against corruption, lack of human rights such as freedom of speech, assembly, repression against Shi’a, and fundamental women’s rights issues. The Shi’a majority protest movement sought a democratically elected government, a threat to the Sunni Monarchs grip on power. The Bahrain government responded through mass arrest, torture, and the killing of protesters with the assistance of Saudi intervention. Many prominent protesters and democracy activists are still imprisoned, on death row, and have had their nationality stripped. Instead of reform, the Bahrain authorities have doubled down on preventing a second popular protest movement. Women’s rights and progress on human rights have regressed since the 2011 Arab Spring protest; the movement’s legacy is still felt today from the streets to online activism.  

Human Rights and Social Media

Women’s rights are fundamental human rights; Bahrain struggles with some of the most severe limitations against women. Sexual assault and rape to marriage contracts are the most critical issue preventing the advancement of women’s rights in Bahrain. Under Article 353 of the Penal Code, Males who commit rape or sexual assault will not face punishment if the perpetrator contracts the victim to marriage. This has led to cohesive marriage practices, further trauma, and institutional acceptance of rape at the victim’s expense. The rape to contract marriage stems from the constitution of 1971, which has enforced a strict Sharia law system that has jurisdiction over social crimes and issues. If the most basic protections and justice are not granted to victims of a crime as severe as rape, it is nearly impossible to advocate for the advancement of women in other sectors of society. 

Further representation of women in the government is crucial to ensure these basic rights are enforced, protected, and increased. The amendment to the constitution in 2002 giving women the right to vote and the choice to run for political office. The bill did result in increased female representation in government as supported by women’s rights groups. In 2018, 39 women ran for office, with six women being elected to the lower house of parliament. While this is a positive step towards some governmental representation, women’s rights campaigners have been targeted for their dissent during demonstrations and social media. In connection with rape culture in Bahrain and activism, in 2017, a female activist was jailed over a social media post criticizing the Grand Prix racing event. She has come forward with an accusation of being raped during interrogations by the police in the female prison. The accusation brings to lite several instances of torture, violence, and threats of rape that other activists, both female and male have claimed. 

The current political and social crackdown in Bahrain continues to involve gross violations of human rights. Human Rights Watch has reported that the Bahraini authorities have continued to use and make no improvements over the use of torture on dissidents. Strictly isolated interrogations with sleep deprivation and torture are used to gain confessions for activism that is critical of the state. Of the 26 people on death row, 12 are charged with political crimes stemming from the 2011 protest movement and subsequent crackdown by the authorities on the human rights campaigners. On the 10th anniversary of the 2011 protest, police are accused of torture and threats of rape and electric shock against youth activists, according to Human Rights Watch. Four of the arrested children are being charged as adults for their role in the protests. As with many detained adults, the children were prevented from having representation during their reported coerced confessions.

The Shi’a community in Bahrain continues to feel the brunt of state repression for their overwhelming dominance in the 2011 Arab Spring protest. Prominent Shia Cleric Sheikh Zuhair Jasim Abbas has been held in isolation, without a lawyer, and has accused the state of torture since his arrest in August 2020. only able to speak to his family by phone in January 2021. The United Nations has continued to call out the Bahrain government for the widespread mistreatment and torture of detainees. Freedom of speech has been limited and marked by state-backed repression of political dissidents, protesters, clerics, journalists, and minority groups. The head of the largest opposition party Sheikh Ali Salman of the al-Wefaq party, has been imprisoned for his critical positions on the Bahrain ruling class and 52 other activists from the 2011 protest.

Social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Telegram are widely used to publicize police and governmental abuses. Social media remains a critical tool for activists to report on human rights broadly across the country. The social media applications have allowed for the spread of information and open communication that can be used to gain support for opposition movements and human rights campaigns. In turn, social media is being used as a tool by the government to go after human rights activists and target individuals who share, post, or follow accounts critical of the government. The Interior Minister has written on Twitter that anyone who engages with ‘sedation’ on social media will be held legally accountable. The Bahrain government attempting to prevent dissent and criticism through the weaponization of citizenship; over 1,000 activists have had their citizenship taken away. Activists with revoked citizenship are forced to apply for residency or leave the country to include their dependents. With mounting pressure, some activists and online critics have had their citizenship reinstated. 

What Can the Biden Administration and Social Media Do?

US-based tech companies have the power of communication and privacy over the Bahrain government. The Biden administration should place pressure on applications such as Twitter, Facebook (Instagram), and Snap Chat to protect IP addresses and personal information of activists in Bahrain who choose to stay anonymous. End-user protection of IP addresses and personal information is critical to prevent arrest and imprisonment. Access to a free internet is crucial for human rights organizers, particularly democracy and women’s rights. Social media platforms should act responsibly to protect activists from the Bahraini authorities and persecution based on user activity of those platforms. 

The sedition charges come with the real risk of torture and prolonged detention that amounts to a gross violation of fundamental human rights. Twitter and FaceBook have already banned and suspended accounts for violations of terms of service for prominent political figures such as Trump for inciting violence and spreading false information. Since already applied within the United States, the same standard should be applied to foreign government officials and politicians using the platform to target activists and suppress human rights with force. Both platforms have already taken steps to block extremist, leftist, and far-right misinformation, leading to real-world violence. Allowing the Bahrain government to use social media platforms to target activists with sedation, leading to torture and detention without legal representation, should be viewed as third-party support that regresses human rights. Further, extending VPN protection for users in Bahrain is an active countermeasure that protects the identity of activists and critics from detention that would otherwise violate their community guidelines in the United States. The dominance of governmental social media accounts is preventing free access to information about human rights abuses in Bahrain. 

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