26 March 2018: The Bahraini Ministry of Interior said in an official statement yesterday that Bahrain is planning to introduce new significant restrictions to online speech and invasive surveillance of online activity and prosecutes critics under the guise of fighting extremism. Online dissidents can expect to face "severe measures" against them, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa said.
“Once again the policy of the Governement is to deal with freedom of expression as a security threat and to further block channels for peaceful expression” said the Bahrain Center for Human Rights today, “this is very concerning that the same authorities who are pledging to tackle extremism by restricting internet freedom, are at home prosecuting people, in particular journalists and human rights activists, who were fighting intolerance and sectarianism online just like our President Nabeel Rajab”, added BCHR.
Bahrain is the country with the highest Internet penetration rate in the MENA region, but also the one that has witnessed a steady and violent crackdown on dissent, often in the form of severe restrictions of the internationally sanctioned right to freedom of expression. In the last three years, the authorities began introducing new regulatory bodies, surveillance software, restrictive laws and regulations to limit the content published on social media about rights violations by the Bahraini authorities and violence, especially after the government succeeded in banning traditional journalism, by denying international journalists from entering Bahrain.
Nabeel Rajab, the most renowned victim of this crackdown on dissent, has been sentenced on 21 February 2018 to five years imprisonment for comments he made on Twitter criticizing the escalating humanitarian crisis caused by the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Yemen, and documenting allegations of torture in the Jau Prison.
Social media and twitter in particular is, currently the last remaining ground for free expression seekers in Bahrain, and especially for Shia opposition, as well as secular and leftist dissents. Such further restrictions would disproportionnally affect them and may result in a very high number of arrests, not only of human rights defenders and activists, but also of journalists and social media users, over online remarks and speeches.
BCHR fear that new vaguely worded regulations could provide a new legal basis to prosecute and jail anyone who want to use information technology to criticize the authorities, report human rights violations or demand political reforms.