Bahrain in the Freedom House Report: Freedom on the Net 2012
26 Sep 2012
This report is the third in a series of comprehensive studies of internet freedom around the globe and covers developments in 47 countries that occurred between January 2011 and May 2012. Over 50 researchers, nearly all based in the countries they analyzed, contributed to the project by researching laws and practices relevant to the internet, testing the accessibility of select websites, and interviewing a wide range of sources.
Bahrain has been connected to the internet since 1995 and currently has one of the highest internet penetration rates in the Middle East. However, as more people have gained access to new technologies, the government has increasingly attempted to curtail their use for obtaining and disseminating politically sensitive information. In 1997, an internet user was arrested for the first time for sending information to an opposition group outside the country, and over the last three years, more internet users have been arrested for online activity.
On February 14, 2011, Bahrainis joined the wave of revolutions sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa, taking to the streets in Manama to call for greater political freedom and protest against the monarchy of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. Similar to the other Arab Spring countries, online activism played a vital role in Bahrain’s demonstrations. In response, the National Safety Status (emergency law) was initiated in March 2011 for two and a half months, leading to an intensive punitive campaign against bloggers and internet users (among others) that was characterized by mass arrests, incommunicado detention, torture, military trials, harsh imprisonment sentences, and dismissal from work and study based on online posts or mobile content. An online activist died in custody under torture in April 2011.
Censorship of online media is implemented under the 2002 Press Law and was extended to mobile telephones in 2010. The use of BlackBerry services to disseminate news is banned. In 2002, the Ministry of Information made its first official attempt to block websites containing content critical of the government, and today over 1,000 websites are blocked, including individual pages on certain social-networking sites. Surveillance of online activity and phone calls is widely practiced, and officers at road security checkpoints actively search mobile content.
OBSTACLES TO ACCESS:
According to the United Nations’ e-Government Readiness report of 2010, Bahrain ranks first on the telecommunications infrastructure index in the Middle East, and the number of internet users has risen rapidly, from a penetration rate of 28 percent in 2006 to 77 percent in 2011. In 2011, there were approximately 290,000 internet subscriptions, of which 19 percent were ADSL, 37 percent were wireless, and 44 percent were mobile broadband. Dial-up connections are almost non-existent, and ADSL use has declined with the increased use of wireless internet. Broadband prices have fallen by nearly 40 percent between 2010 and 2011, but it remains significantly more expensive than the average among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and restrictions on speeds and download limits still exist. Nevertheless, internet access is widely available at schools, universities, shopping malls and coffee shops, where Bahrainis often gather for work and study.
Bahrain has one of the highest mobile phone penetration rates in the region, with nearly 1.7 million mobile subscribers and a mobile penetration rate of 128 percent in 2011. The latest generation of mobile phones such as Apple’s iPhone is widely available in the country, but they are still very expensive. Although BlackBerry phones are popular among young people and the business community, in April 2010 the authorities banned BlackBerry users from sending news bulletins through text messages, threatening those who violated the ban with legal action.
Following the February 14, 2011 protests, the government intensified censorship and surveillance of advanced Web 2.0 applications and blocked interactive exchanges online, particularly when its political agenda was not supported. Internet connections became very slow, making it difficult to upload media, and some locations were entirely offline. Internet traffic into and out of Bahrain dropped by 20 percent during the protests, which could have been a result of intentional governmental throttling or a side effect of surveillance-related tinkering with the network. Furthermore, phones lines were disrupted in many areas amid attacks on protesters on March 15 and 16, 2011.
Access to the video-sharing site YouTube, social-networking site Facebook, and the micro-blogging site Twitter is available, although individual pages on each of those platforms are often blocked. Meanwhile, the most prominent online forum Bahrainonline.org has been blocked since its launch in 1998. The Arabic regional portal and blog-hosting service Al-Bawaba has also been blocked since 2006, and online newspapers have been banned from the use of video and audio reports on their websites since a 2010 order by the Information Affairs Authority (IAA), the government body that replaced the Ministry of Information in 2010 and oversees both traditional and online media outlets in Bahrain. The ban applies to all online newspapers except the state-owned Bna.bh, which publishes video reports taken from state television.
Since February 2011, most live broadcasting websites that were popular among protesters have been blocked. PalTalk, a chatting service that was used to conduct political seminars with prominent guests and mass online audiences, has been blocked since June 2011, while many blogs critical of government views were also blocked in 2011, particularly those that documented the protests and government crackdown (see “Limits on Content”).
Despite the obstacles to access, Bahrain’s online community has grown rapidly in recent years, especially in social media. By the end of 2011, the number of Bahraini users on Facebook reached 315,000 with a penetration of 45 percent, and there are more than 3,500 local entities (both government and civil society) with a Facebook page. Around 62,000 Bahraini users were active on Twitter as of March 2011. The word “Bahrain” was among the top hashtags used on Twitter in the Arab region, and an Al Jazeera monitoring tool found Bahrain to be the most active on Twitter compared to other countries in the region during the Arab Spring events.
There are 13 internet service providers (ISPs) serving Bahraini users, but the major providers are Batelco, Zain, MENA Telecom, and VIVA. The last two provide the increasingly popular WiMAX technology. According to Bahrain’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), some 31 ISP licenses have been granted for internet services, but only 13 providers are in business, and only two of them are licensed to provide wireless internet. Three of the major ISPs—Batelco, Zain, and VIVA—are also the only mobile operators in Bahrain. The largest telecom company and ISP in Bahrain, Batelco, has a majority of its shares owned by the government, while the other ISPs are owned by investors from the private sector, including non-Bahraini investors. There is no centralized backbone to control the internet in Bahrain, but all ISPs are indirectly controlled by the government through orders from the TRA.
There have been no reported instances of ISPs being denied registration permits. However, on March 21, 2011, the TRA revoked all licenses of 2Connect Company (a telecom provider and ISP) without providing a clear reason, though one of the shareholders of the company was a prominent opposition leader who was arrested a few days earlier on March 17. All clients were given seven days to move to another service provider, but some Bahraini banks using 2Connect services for certain transaction platforms had difficulty switching these core systems to other providers on the very short notice. Without much explanation, the TRA withdrew its decision on April 13, 2011 and allowed 2Connect to resume operations.
Mobile phone services and ISPs are regulated by the TRA under the 2002 Telecommunications Law. Although the TRA is an independent organization on paper, its members are appointed by the government, and its chairman reports to the Minister of State for Cabinet Affairs responsible for telecommunications, Sheikh Ahmed bin Attiyatallah al-Khalifa, who is also a member of the ruling family. The TRA has issued several regulations that have not been welcomed by consumers, including measures that violate individual privacy rights (see “Violations on User Rights”).
LIMITS ON CONTENT:
According to some estimates, the IAA has blocked and shut down more than 1,000 websites, including human rights websites, blogs, online forums, and individual pages from social media networks, focusing on sites that are critical of the Bahraini government, parliament, and ruling family. In 2011, YouTube pages containing videos of torture testimonies or police attacks against civilians were blocked, as were other webpages chronicling the government’s brutal crackdown. The IAA can order the blocking of a website without referring the case to a court. It has instructed all ISPs to “prohibit any means that allow access to sites blocked by the ministry,” and the license of any operator that violates the decree will be revoked.
The filtering of websites in Bahrain is based on keyword density, the manual entry of URLs, and certain website categories, including potential circumvention tools like Google Translate and Google cached pages. The government regularly updates the list of websites to block, which is sent to ISPs. Batelco, Bahrain’s main ISP, filters the web using McAfee SmartFilter software and Blue Coat technology. In March 2011, plans were announced to switch to technology from Palo Alto Networks that can block activities within websites, such as video or photo uploading, and make it more difficult for users to circumvent censorship.
Website administrators face the same libel laws that apply to print journalists and are held jointly responsible for all content posted on their sites or chat rooms. Following the March 2011 crackdown, moderators of online forums and administrators of Facebook pages that organized and shared news of the protests were specifically targeted. Many forums were shut down under pressure from security officers, resulting in the loss of a large amount of information on Bahrain’s history and heritage that had been documented by online users and made available only through the local forums and websites. Documentation of daily news and events on the forums also became inaccessible, and most of the sites remain closed as of April 2012.
The authorities use various methods to force removal of unwanted content. For example, in February 2011 a non-Bahraini resident who was active in taking and uploading videos of the crackdown on protesters and whose YouTube videos became viral on the BBC and other news channels, was tracked by security agents who came to his apartment and forced him to delete all the videos on his computer, camcorder, and YouTube channel. In other cases, YouTube administrators removed some videos of the crackdown on the basis of third-party notifications of copyright infringement, even though the videos were shot by civilian journalists. The Facebook and Twitter pages of Rasad News, a major source of news about human rights violations in Bahrain, were overtaken by regime agents who began posting anti-protest and pro-regime content after the arrest of one of the page’s administrators in June 2011.
Censorship of websites became increasingly prolific in Bahrain in 2011, with the Facebook page that had called for protests on February 14, 2011 the first to be blocked. Mainstream media outlets reporting on Bahrain were also targeted with censorship online. For example, the website of the local independent Al-Wasat newspaper was blocked for 24 hours in April 2011 after being accused of spreading falsehoods that distorted the reputation of the kingdom outside of Bahrain. The website of the London-based Al-Qudus Al-Arabi newspaper was blocked in May 2011 after its editor criticized Saudi Arabia for sending troops to suppress the peaceful demonstrations in Bahrain. Media outlets such as the Al-Alam TV channel, PressTv, and Lualua TV that reported on the unrest also had their websites blocked during the year. The anti-government news site Bahrainmirror.com, which is published from abroad, was blocked in June 2011.
In April 2011, the government of Bahrain censored one of its own websites belonging to the Jaffaria Waqf Directorate (www.jwd.gov.bh) to prevent public access to documents of registered mosques after the authorities had demolished a number of mosques amid the crackdowns against protestors. The website gave an official block message even when accessed via a proxy or from outside Bahrain, but the site was still accessible through its internet protocol (IP) address. The authorities removed the block when activists published mirrored content on a different site.
The IAA officially blocks websites containing pornography or material that may provoke violence or religious hatred. In practice, however, many websites run by national or international NGOs are inaccessible. For example, the websites of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) and the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) have been blocked since 2006. The websites of several political societies—including the Alwefaq Islamic Society, National Democratic Action Socie