The right to freedom of opinion and expression is one of the basic human rights, and it plays a major role in preserving other freedoms and rights. Without the freedom of opinion and expression, corruption ramps, chaos pervades, and human rights violations continue until communities turn into authoritarian societies. This right is recognized in many international covenants and agreements. Article (19) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”. This right constitutes essential support for democratic states and societies.
Freedom of opinion and expression in Bahrain
2010 and 2011
Since the start of the popular movement in Bahrain on 14 February 2011, the protests have turned into confrontations between peaceful protesters and the security forces. It resulted in the killing of 3 citizens outside the framework of the law and a number of wounded. However, the systematic repression of all peaceful protest activities continued.
The human rights situation in Bahrain began to deteriorate dramatically during the second half of 2010. Starting in mid-August, the security authorities arrested approximately two hundred and fifty individuals, including figures and leaders in the opposition political associations. Additionally, the authorities closed the sites and publications of opposition political associations without legal justification. In 2011, the Bahraini authorities used lethal force in suppressing peaceful demonstrations against the government and protests calling for democracy. The security forces used rubber bullets, tear gas, and birdshot in their suppression of protesters, which caused an increase in the number of killings and injuries among protesters. This repression against the protesters continued even after the end of the state of “national safety”, on 1 June 2011 by the official authorities.
In 2012, the government did not succeed in implementing the basic recommendations issued by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), known as the “Bassiouni Commission”. It was appointed by the King of Bahrain Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to investigate the government’s response to the demonstrations calling for democracy in February and March 2011. The security forces used excessive force against the peaceful protesters, arbitrarily arrested them, subjected them to torture and ill-treatment, and deprived them of their right to a fair trial.
2013 and 2014
The human rights record in Bahrain deteriorated in basic areas, and the government did not make any real progress in the reforms it claimed that it was seeking to achieve. The security forces continued to arbitrarily arrest citizens in villages and cities that witness protests on a regular basis. Local and international human rights organizations have received reports of torture and ill-treatment in detention centers and prisons, to be consistent with the findings of the 2011 Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry.
The failure of the official authorities on the ground to implement a number of basic recommendations from the report of BICI contradicts its claims that it is making progress on the human rights track. The authorities have not reformed the judicial system, and human rights activists and individuals in the opposition have been subjected to arrest and prosecution. The authorities also imposed more legislation, and arbitrarily revoke the nationalities of the opposition members.
The situation continued to deteriorate and the protests continued despite the ban on freedom of assembly. The police used excessive force to disperse demonstrators, while the authorities continued to impose restrictions on freedom of expression, and prosecuted prominent activists on charges related to freedom of opinion and expression in unfair trials. New laws were enacted to revoke the nationalities of human rights activists and political opposition members, making them stateless.
The freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstration is considered a form of freedom of opinion and expression. However, the authorities in Bahrain gradually restricted this right until it was completely banned in 2013. In 2006, the Public Gatherings Law was issued, which places restrictions on gatherings. In 2012, a new amendment was issued which puts more restrictions on demonstrations and gatherings, as well as imposes heavy fines. In addition, the Minister of Interior, Rashid bin Abdullah Al Khalifa, stated that all marches and gatherings will be stopped, and no event will be allowed except after being assured of establishing security and achieving the desired stability, in order to preserve national unity.
Accordingly, the Bahraini authorities prevented citizens from demonstrating peacefully and arrested the participants in the demonstrations and those who called for them. They also imposed restrictions on social media sites and besieged the online activists, especially on Twitter. As well, the authorities unjustifiably closed Al-Wasat newspaper, which is the only independent newspaper. Every year in March, the Bahraini citizens demonstrate against the authority’s use of excessive force in 2011 to disperse the largest popular movement that took place in the Pearl Roundabout. The repression resulted in the death of many citizens and the injury of hundreds, not to mention the successive wave of arbitrary arrests that included the arrest of many human rights activists in Bahrain, many of whom are still imprisoned at the moment of writing this report.
In 2016, there was a clear deterioration in the human rights situation in Bahrain when the authorities disbanded Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society which was the largest political party in the country. The authorities imprisoned prominent human rights activists, harassed clerics belonging to the Shiite sect, and arbitrarily revoked their nationalities. It happened with the spiritual leader of the Al-Wefaq, Sheikh Issa Qassem. That systematic suppression of the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association undermined prospects for a political solution to Bahrain’s internal unrest.
The human rights situation in Bahrain continued to deteriorate in 2017, as the official authorities closed “Al Wasat” newspaper, which was considered by many to be the only independent newspaper in the country, and disbanded prominent political association. In addition, the most prominent human rights activist in the country, Nabeel Rajab, was imprisoned on the background of charges related to freedom of opinion and expression. Moreover, the government ended the suspension of the death penalty by executing 3 individuals in January 2017, after unfair trials. The victims were executed despite reporting to international organizations that false confessions were extracted from them under torture.
The Bahraini courts stripped, since January 2018, at least 243 people of their nationality, including human rights activists, leaving most of them stateless. The authorities also have forcibly deported at least 8 people after revoking their nationality. The Court of Cassation upheld a five-year prison sentence on Nabeel Rajab, former President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights(BCHR) and Deputy Secretary General of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), on the background of his tweets criticizing torture in “Jaw Central Prison” in Bahrain and the Saudi-led military operations in Yemen.
In 2019, Bahrain expanded its crackdown on social media activity on the Internet. On 30 May, the Bahraini Ministry of Interior announced that people who follow accounts that “cause discord” or who re-post what those inciting accounts publish, will be subject to legal accountability. In a post on 6 June, Twitter agreed with activists that such statements “pose a major threat to freedom of expression and the press.”
In the face of these events and as a result of its position within the international system, Bahrain has received many international calls to protect the right to expression and demands for democracy.
The Bahraini authorities ignored the local and international calls on Bahrain to guarantee the right to freedom of assembly and association and the freedom of opinion and expression, especially after Bahrain’s decision to ban demonstrations in Manama. That was a clear violation of human rights, especially what is mentioned in Article (20) of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that “everyone has the right to peaceful assembly and association”. Article (21) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights also states that “the right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized”.
In light of the international community’s shameful dealing with human rights issues in Bahrain, especially the suffering of prisoners, the authorities have failed to hold accountable those responsible for torture and ill-treatment despite the installation of oversight mechanisms as recommended by the BICI, established following mass protests in 2011.
Human Rights Watch stated in “World Report 2019” that Bahrain suppressed peaceful dissent in 2018, effectively ending all forms of dissent. As well, no independent media was allowed to operate in the country in 2018. Ahead of the parliamentary elections in November, parliament banned members of disbanded opposition parties from running. Additionally, peaceful opposition members have been arrested, tried, ill-treated, and stripped of their citizenship.
The authorities prosecuted many social media activists, especially on Twitter, because of their criticism of the government policy or simply for expressing opinions contrary to the official opinion. The Bahraini lawyer Abdullah Al-Shamlawi was among those who were tried for his posts on Twitter. As well, the authority issued court rulings against other users of social networks for expressing their opinions, and others have been summoned for investigation or are still being tried, such as lawyer Abdullah Hashem. Some of the activists have been pressured to stop posting tweets, by threatening them and exposing them to psychological torture and ill-treatment. It is noteworthy that they arrested because their tweets included criticism of the performance of the Parliament, criticism of a policy pursued or followed by the government, or for expressing an opinion on religious or sectarian issues.
List of detained social media activists
- Khalil Al-Madhoun, an online activist
- Sayed Ali Sayed Falah Al-Dirazi, an online activist
- Ali Al-Miiraj, online activist
- Sayed Ahmed Al-Mousawi, photographer
- Ahmed Humaidan, photographer
- Mahmoud Al-Jaziri, a journalist
- Hassan Cumber, photographer
- Jaafar Marhoun, photographer
- Ahmed Zainuddin, photographer
- Mustafa Rabie, Photographer
- Hussam Sorour, photographer
- Yasser Al-Mawali, an online activist
- Hassan Gharib, photographer
- Mohammed Al-Shorouki, TV host
- Abdulaziz Al-Shammari, online activist
- Abdulaziz Al-Shawish, online activist
- Zafer Al-Zayani, online activist
- Ahmed Al-Benkhalil, online activist
Journalists and writers whose nationalities have been revoked
- Hussein Yusef
- Ali Abdul-Imam
- Abbas Safwan
- Sayed Ahmed Al-Mousawi
- Ali Al-Mi’raj
- Mahmoud Al-Jaziri
- D. Ali Al-Dairi
The freedom of opinion and expression in Bahrain has been struggling over the past decades to free itself from its restrictions. These restrictions have intensified after the events of 2011, as the government dealt with those who express their opinion with the most severe repression. They found themselves vulnerable to killing, arrests, or revocation of nationality.
The suppression practiced by the government of Bahrain stems from the newly enacted laws that include provisions governing imprisonment or dismissal from work. Such provisions do not respect international laws and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in addition to its violations of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
- The immediate and unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience who were arrested for expressing their views;
- Repealing laws that do not comply with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in the Bahraini Penal Code that limit freedom of expression;
- Allowing Al-Wasat newspaper to work again without conditions or restrictions that do not comply with Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights;
- Abolishing the disbanding of political parties and allowing them to exercise their legitimate right to peaceful political activity.