What Does Freedom of Expression in Bahrain Need?

Objective Criticism or Incitement?

Hasan Moosa Shafaie

Hasan Moosa Shafaie

Bahrain (along with Kuwait) leads GCC countries in relation to freedom of expression. Both countries are the most developed in the practice of democracy, which constitutes an umbrella for all civil liberties and political rights.

While Bahrain is often criticised locally and internationally for so-called violations of freedom of expression, the level of freedom of expression in other GCC countries is much lower. However, international organisations know very little about these countries, due to lack of information regarding their continued violations.

The criticism directed at Bahrain is very much related to the lack of a modern press and publications law, which the Government and the legislative authority have not yet ratified. Also, distorted information has projected an image of Bahrain as a state that oppresses journalists and public freedoms.

Freedom of expression in Bahrain is facing another challenge in addition to the inaccurate assessment by international organizations. This involves the confusion and distortion of certain principles, which have led to blurring the lines between the practice of criticism and inciting violence and illegal activities.

The practice of criticism is a core issue in the process of political change and in the reforms adopted at the beginning of the new millennium. During this time, officials had to endure unfamiliar and harsh criticism, which was previously unheard of. Since then, it is no longer a problem to criticise an official or the performance of a certain ministry or executive body. Furthermore, citizens are now able to organize street protests in front of ministries and state institutions, something which often takes place in Bahrain. Anyone working in the public sector can be subjected to criticism in the press and on the internet, which is a favourable kind of criticism, and is governed by laws. Criticism is also necessary for any society in the process of democratization, which aims to scrutinize the performance of the Executive Authority.

Prohibiting the practice of criticism is not possible and is also unconstitutional. The right to freedom of expression and the right to practice criticism, which the Bahraini public has enjoyed for the past ten years, are non-negotiable. Furthermore, criticism of Government officials can clearly be found in local newspapers, through various public activities.

Activities by political societies such as mass mobilization through organising seminars, protests, publications and press conferences, are not only acceptable, but should also be respected and encouraged for the following reasons:

These activities are conducted within a recognised partisan political framework.

They are also conducted in accordance with the law, and in line with the National Action Charter, which reflects public consensus.

The aims of these mobilisation activities also include: the desire for political participation, the correction of the course of the Government, if necessary, and the protection of society.

It is an acceptable and normal part of political action to use mobilization in, for example, supporting or preventing a bill from being passed in Parliament, or in political or partisan elections, or in legal protests. This is as long as the State’s fundamentals are maintained, and provided that law and order are respected. On the other hand, preventing legal, political and human rights activities will only harm the State and its political system.

All the above differs from incitement under its various covers such as criticism, practicing freedom of expression, or practicing civil and political rights. The question is how can we differentiate between a legal practice and incitement?

This dilemma has faced Bahrain in the last years, and was the reason behind many of the criticisms levelled against Government bodies.

When extremists are criticised for their involvement in illegal actions, they say that they are merely practicing their rights, to the extent that violence, setting fires and undermining private and public interests have become ‘peaceful human rights practices’, which do not require obtaining permission from the authorities!

From the experience in Bahrain, there are four main distinctions between the practice of political action and freedom of expression, and inciting and adopting a stirring rhetoric, whether or not it includes direct references to violence:

Firstly: clearly, the most important characteristic of the rhetoric of incitement is its disrespect of the law, political system and the State as a whole, as those who use it openly announce that they do not recognise the existence of the State. Thus, advocates of violence refuse to register their activities legally, as political societies, or seek to obtain permission for their protests.

There is nothing wrong with criticism and mobilization within the legal framework, in fact they are required. The existence of political action entails that a political system and a responsible government apparatus also exist, and that there is a law that should be respected. This constitutes civilised behaviour to prevent chaos, protect public interest and develop the performance of the public and political system. On the other hand, the discourse of incitement violates the law and order and rational thought.

Secondly: the discourse of incitement is immersed in self-justification. It justifies its ideas, work and individuals, and at the same time, it does not accept the opinion, ideas and work of others. Additionally, it absolves itself of any shortcomings, classifies their mistakes as good deeds and argues for the sake of arguing about clear-cut issues, such as the legitimacy of violent acts.

It is easy for the public to distinguish between violent actions (such as burning tyres and blocking streets, using Molotov cocktails and burning power generators) and peaceful ones; but it is not necessarily that easy with regard to the rhetorical enticement. The latter does not always support violence openly, but it always finds justification for it, one way or another.

Thus we find that this discourse never condemns violence, and always tries to find justifications for it, which reflects its belief that practicing violence is a legal right, and attributes this to human rights instruments.

Thirdly, violent rhetoric and incitement relies on the use of generalization in its accusations, and on radicalism in the solutions it offers. For example, if one official makes a mistake, the whole ruling class is blamed for it. Advocates of such a discourse do not seek to find solutions for an existing shortcoming, rather, they give the impression that the entire State apparatus is corrupt, and that the solution is to eradicate the system completely. By doing so, they seek to cancel the State and the law, and open the door for radical solutions beyond both.

Fourthly, the rhetoric of violence is often preoccupied with conspiracy theories, and its advocates constantly invent and exaggerate conspiracies by enemies, be they from the Government, a political opponent, or even an individual with a different opinion.

Hence, this violent rhetoric loses its touch with reality, and mediators miss opportunities to reach solutions and compromises which may help advocates of this rhetoric to mature. This is actually the main purpose of establishing dialogue with them, but what happens is that objective discussions quickly get out of hand, and become impossible to sustain.

The features of this rhetoric rarely compiled in one activity; sometimes only one characteristic can be found in an essay or a speech, for example. Thus, there are different kinds of violence advocates: some are clear and direct, whilst ‘cleverer’ ones only reveal one part of their rhetoric, in order to avoid being held responsible.