Foreign Media Coverage of the Violence in Bahrain

The recent violence and riots in Bahrain, particularly during the last few months, have attracted the attention of foreign media both inside and outside the country, especially with the presence of foreign correspondents and several press offices working in the capital city Al Manama. Hot news inevitably draws media attention, therefore, news agencies, newspapers and TV channels were all quick to cover the story, and according to some journalists, the attention given to the issue by far exceeded what it actually deserved.

This is not the subject of debate here, rather the nature of the media coverage itself and by prominent and well established media institutions such as Reuters, the Financial Times, the BBC

and the Economist among others. In general, this foreign media coverage resulted in many errors and exaggerations, and negatively impacted the already heated local situation. As the situation has calmed down significantly, it is now possible to discuss and analyze the media coverage and its outcome in the following points:

In analyzing the event:

  • Media coverage focused on the events as part of ‘a sectarian conflict’ between the Shia majority and the Sunni minority, and sometimes between the royal family and the Shia population or between a Shia group and a fundamentalist Sunni one. It is obvious that this kind of analysis is inaccurate, for those who incited the riots were just a minority, however loud their voices were and despite the fact that they practiced their activities under the banner of ‘Shia demands’. Even if these demands were legitimate, the way in which they were expressed was not directed towards Sunnis. In fact, the recent unrest was aimed at the Government and all its institutions, as advocates of violence in the streets did not show any consideration either to the law or to the Government and its institutions. This means that the unrest that occurred was a form of politicized violence and did not constitute a ‘sectarian conflict’, rather it was an attempt to achieve political objectives using illegal means.
  • Foreign media coverage also gave the impression that the minority who were at the centre of the events represented the majority of Bahraini citizens. This claim is still being said by the leaders of some groups to show that their demands were that of the majority of the people in the country. Here, the media also made another error, as although there is almost a unanimous agreement on certain demands, there are also different opinions on the best way to achieve these demands. The majority stresses the use of legitimate and peaceful means, while the minority only believes in the use of violence and rioting. Moreover, there are some demands that are limited to radical groups only such as the call to overthrow the royal family, dismissing the bases on which the state has been established and demanding to review such bases.
  • Foreign media coverage has also connected the violence and riots that occurred in Bahrain to foreign interferences from countries such as Iran, Syria and Britain. The fact that it is in the interest of some foreign countries to inflame the situation in the country should not be overstated to the extent that local aspects, which played a major part in the unjustified and unacceptable violence phenomena, are ignored, whatever their reasons.
  • During foreign media coverage of the events, there are some who portrayed what happened as a battle between human rights defenders and an authoritarian regime which violates human rights, as if there is no tolerance or margin of public freedoms in Bahrain, and that instead Bahrain only deals oppressively with the opposition. This image of Bahrain which appeared from time to time in some reports is not only incorrect and unfair, but is also of no benefit whatsoever to human rights defenders and Bahraini political activists. This stereotypical depiction can be considered more accurate when applied to other regimes in a number of countries in the Middle East in general, but in Bahrain it is far from being true - any fair observer would agree to this analysis. Currently in Bahrain, there is no one political prisoner or a prisoner of conscience. Despite its small size, Bahrain is experiencing a free press atmosphere, free legislative elections and is home to hundreds of civil society organizations. Accepting the pessimistic picture which appeared in some foreign media coverage would entail accepting the radical and hopeless call for change. Indeed, Bahrain has not become an oasis of freedom yet, but it has certainly taken reasonable steps towards respecting the rights of its citizens and residents since the start of the reforms in 1999. However, political and human rights activists are still demanding more reforms.
  • * Foreign media coverage of the events was not balanced, as it adopted the radical views and the views of those who stand behind them. On the other hand, the coverage did not reflect the opinions of the Government and more importantly that of influential civil society organizations, particularly political society (parties). These opinions were either completely ignored or given only a small space and this eventually presented the reader with a distorted picture of the events. Presenting the events in this way portrays Bahrain as having only one major political player in total isolation of well known other major actors. In essence the views of radical groups are imbalanced, and their statements do not deal with all aspects of the political scene. The radical groups were concerned with presenting their version of events as the one and only truth, ignoring issues of violence, rioting and vandalism. They did not question who behind the violence, riots and vandalism or the motive behind them. Furthermore, the radical groups sought to convince the public opinion, locally and internationally, that the violence which took place was a mere ‘expression of opinion’ and that the Government alone bears the responsibility for it. This attempt by the radical groups is without a doubt a distorted picture of the situation.

The reasons:

Why was foreign media coverage of the events in Bahrain so unsuccessful, biased, subjective, contributed to the escalation of tensions at the local political arena and encouraged radical groups to persist?

There are several reasons for this. However, the media, as well as the Bahraini Government, political societies and local human rights organizations all share responsibility for the problem. The reasons can be summarized as follows:

  • Performance of official media can be described as weak or even nonexistent. This does not mean that the opinion of the Government is always ‘right’ but it means that the official media could have added some balance to the coverage of the mentioned events. Also, Government officials did not communicate with foreign correspondents residing in Bahrain or sufficiently express their opinions about the events. They also failed to communicate with the larger media institutions around the world. On other hand, the radical groups were much better in communicating with the media and in making their presence obvious than Government officials who lacked a renewed language, clear vision and rapid responses.
  • In addition to the above, the moderate political wing of the opposition (which represents the majority of the population as was affirmed by the elections) decided not to engage in a media battle and perhaps also chose not to constantly provide the media with their opinion. This political wing was occupied with internal political activities and its members were absent from the scene for months, until they regained the initiative. Members of the wing helped the country to return to peace and stability, and by cooperating with the Government, were able to accomplish the recent royal pardon and secure the release of the detainees. Howevr, the radical groups are expected to resume actions of riots again.
  • The presence of some activists, who carried the banner of human rights and at the same time supported violent political actions, was a misleading factor for international human rights organizations and foreign media. This fact resulted in inaccurate statements or the portrayal of the situation as a conflict between human rights defenders and an authoritarian and oppressive regime. In fact, these human rights activists are merely members of political parties and observing their actions, coalitions and discourse will reveal their connection with specific parties.
  • Foreign media possesses a stereotypical image of the nature of political systems in the Middle East and generally they only see two clear pictures: dictatorships and this includes all Arab countries, and one democratic state which is Israel. This stereotyping forced the foreign media to simplify analysis of Middle Eastern countries. According to this stereotyping, there always exist dictatorships which merit condemnation, without paying the attention to the fact that there are big differences between Middle Eastern countries themselves regarding the nature of their ruling systems, bearing in mind that there is currently more than one country in the region moving towards democracy.
  • The violent political events in Bahrain were strongly connected to a wider regional and international analytical framework, and as a result of this the events were stripped of their local proportions and given a regional and even international character, far greater than they deserved. There are some countries which invested in the events and covered them in their media from a sectarian point of view and presented them as a Wahhabi/Shia conflict which falls within the scope of influence between the more powerful states in the Middle East. Some Western media took this a step further and connected what happened in Bahrain with Iran and exaggerated it, thus considering the events part of a conflict between Iran and the United States of America in the Gulf region. On the other hand, the Iranian media covered the events from their own point of view and took them out of their local context, placing them within a larger regional and international conflict. Finally, it is clear that the violent events were unique in attracting considerable media attention and coverage from various opponents and competitors in the region, but unfortunately this came at the expense of the truth.