Over the past year, renewed calls for protest and a tamarod (“rebellion”) led to the throttling of internet speeds around key events, the temporary blocking of social media and communication apps, and the blocking of websites linked to the political opposition and Shiite groups. New regulations that would restrict online freedom are underway, including a cybercrimes law that would criminalize establishing a website to promote “the disruption of public order”. A combined total of 360 months (30 years) of prison sentences have been passed down on twelve Bahraini citizens as a result of their ICT activities, of which the longest was ten years. Users were handed one-year jail terms; similar cases the year before resulted in six-month sentences.
Surveillance of online activity and phone calls, combined with the continued crackdown on users, is pushing more Bahrainis toward self-censorship. Numerous users arrested for social media posts, particularly on Twitter, reported being subject to physical or psychological torture while held by authorities. Blogger Mahamed Hasan fled the country and applied for political asylum after his arrest and torture. Finally, online activists are subject to consistent cyberattacks, including targeting with spy links to expose their identity using fake accounts operated by the government.
In the absence of a representative government, many Bahrainis look to the internet as an outlet for expressing political, economic, and social frustrations in the country. Unfortunately, as the importance of online tools has grown, so too has the desire of the Bahraini authorities to extend censorship and government repression practices from the real world into the online domain. In 1997, only two years after the internet was introduced in the country, a Bahraini internet user was arrested for the first time after sending information to a political opposition group outside of the country.
Crackdowns on Bahraini internet users escalated in 2011, following widespread protests against the ruling family of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. The authorities engaged in mass arrests, military trials, torture, and widespread intimidation tactics in an attempt to silence popular demands for greater political rights and democratic freedoms, including a new constitution and an elected government. One online activist died from torture while in police custody in April 2011, and the court failed to hold anyone accountable for it, amid a culture of impunity. The Ministry of Information made its first official attempt to block websites containing content critical of the government in 2002, and as of 2009 at least 1,000 websites were blocked, including individual pages on certain social-networking sites.
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