Ahead of Bahrain protests, a sweep against citizen journalists

Bahrain's protesters are promising anti-government protests on Aug. 14. Ahead of it, the country appears to be moving to silence citizen journalists.

Hasan Jamali
Anti-government protesters in Bahrain on Aug. 10.

Forget Egypt - Bahrain is about to experience another round of large countrywide protests and chances are, you might not hear about them.

A tiny island nation, Bahrain sits near Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf and is important to US interests in the region because it hosts the Navy's Fifth Fleet, responsible for patrolling the oil-rich region's waters.

On August 14, protesters have promised to take to the streets once more to demand democratic reform in the latest installment of a two-year long protest movement. The response of the government of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa to the protest wave has been repression, and the government has made it almost impossible for foreign reporters to cover the turmoil.

This has forced Bahraini citizen journalists to cover their own protests for the outside world and they've succeeded - until now.

With August 14 quickly approaching, citizen journalists are the government's new targets. A week ago, I spoke online with a citizen journalist inside Bahrain who told me his arrest might be imminent because he feared a crackdown had begun against him and his colleagues. He had good reason to worry. At 3 am on July 31, fifteen masked men woke up Bahraini blogger Mohammed Hassan in his house and arrested him.

His computer, camera, phone and every other electronic item found in his room were also confiscated. The young blogger's family was only told that he was "wanted." On Friday, after his lawyer AbdulAziz Mosa tweeted about evidence that Hassan had been beaten in detention, Mr. Mosa was arrested.

The family knew who the men were; early morning arrests by multiple masked men are usually the work of the country's feared Central Intelligence Department (CID), Said Yousif, the head of monitoring at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) who spoke to the family, told me in a phone call from Bahrain.

That evening, Hassan's best friend photographer Hussain Hubail was arrested by police at Bahrain's main airport. He managed to call his family to tell them he had been surrounded by police at the immigration check while he was trying to fly to Dubai. He, too, was only told that he was "wanted."

Less than 300 square miles in size and with a population of 1.2 million, half of them non-nationals, Bahrain's capital Manama and its scattering of villages each have their own bloggers and photographers to cover the unrest. Hassan and Hubail were responsible for disseminating information from the village of Sitra, in the east.

Their arrests were followed on Aug. 2 by Qassim Zainaldeen's, a photographer from the village of Diraz in the north. The culprits again were masked men who took him away from his home in the wee hours of the morning with his electronic equipment. All three were transferred to the main prison at the dry docks after several days of no news about their whereabouts.

Their arrests came after a hastily created series of recommendations from the Bahraini national parliament on July 28 that seek to severely curtail freedoms. Besides banning all protests in the capital and threatening to revoke the citizenship of those found guilty of "terrorist crimes," one of the 22 recommendations grants "the security bodies all required and appropriate powers to protect society from terror incidents and prevent spreading them." 

Not yet made law, Human Rights Watch writes that the recommendations would give the authorities too much power and could hamper freedom of assembly and speech. Bahraini activists claim they have been created to stop the August 14 protests and their coverage.

"Under the frame and discourse of terrorism, the Bahraini regime is attempting to prevent protests from taking place," Maryam AlKhawaja, the Acting President of BCHR, told me over the phone from Copenhagen in Denmark. She accused the government of going after citizen journalists and activists to make coverage of the protests impossible. She tried to fly into Bahrain this Friday, but was turned away at the airport in Copenhagen, told by her airline that she was on a list of people banned from entering Bahrain.

Her BCHR colleague Said Yousif is not surprised by how blatantly the citizen journalists were detained. "Since April, 700 protesters have been arrested and over 100 have been injured in protest due to police brutality," he said.

Now it seems it's the citizen journalists' turn.

In the past two years at least 80 protesters have been killed and in 2011 alone, an independent commission concluded that almost 3,000 were arrested. Many have been sent to prison for taking part in protests or clashing with police, including a dozen Bahrainis who were sentenced on July 31 to two-year sentences. Claims of torture against citizens are rampant, but the government has yet to prosecute or find any high-ranking official guilty of the crime. A high-ranking official was acquitted last month of charges of torturing medics who'd treated protesters.

The new recommendations on terrorism are a terrifying specter for the citizen journalists who are still free, with some believed to be in hiding. Ordinary protesters, too, are feeling the pinch. Yousif told me that a few days ago, he was made aware that the government was holding a "terrorist" in custody at a local hospital. "I went there, expecting to see someone like Osama bin Laden," he said, "When I got there, the terrorist turned out to be a protester, with a tear gas canister wound on his head."

Follow Josh Shahryar on Twitter. 

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