In Bahrain, the Web makes controlling dissent just a little bit harder

Is the online opposition a sign that political repression is obsolete, or the poor, anarchic cousin of a free press?

In another age, Bahrain would just be another family-controlled Arab nation -- a "flyspeck of an island nation" -- cracking down on the loyal opposition despite making several slights concessions towards democracy. But this is the age of the Net, and in Bahrain,  the Times reports, shutting down the opposition is not so easy.

In the old days, with its monopoly over television and radio and the ability to shut down newspapers, the Khalifa dynasty would have had less trouble controlling the debate. Now, with the Internet and satellite television outside its reach, the government resorts to tactics like tossing Abdulemam and two of his fellow Web masters into jail for a couple of weeks, as it did last year.

At the time, the opposition orchestrated repeated demonstrations and international intervention to help win his release, but legal charges of insulting the king, incitement and disseminating false news remain pending and can be dredged up at any time.

But online politics is no replacement for a free press and an open democratic process, the article says.

"Freedom of expression is something you have to take, not something that will be granted to you," Abdulemam said, but he doubts that free speech alone will accomplish much. "Their policy basically comes down to, 'Say what you want and we will do what we want.'"

BahrainOnline is the go-to political site, with princes, Parliament members, opposition leaders and others with an interest in politics saying they consult it daily to find out what the opposition is thinking.

Still, the site's Web masters are often criticized for creating a "tabloid" that spreads rumors and demeans those considered enemies. Ghada Jamsheer, a women's rights advocate who criticized the Shiite clergy for opposing a proposed law that would give more defined divorce rights to women, said her face was pasted onto a naked body.

Abdulemam said his site was blamed for trash posted on any site in Bahrain, and his Web masters, monitoring as many as 1,000 posts a day, remove anything that promotes violence. He laughs when he recalls his arrest and how little his interrogators knew about how the Internet works, blaming him for the content of every posting.

Mansour Jamri, editor of a daily newspaper, Wasat, and the son of a famous Shiite opposition cleric, notes that many of those writing on the Web sites are very young.

"If you don't shout with them you are a corrupt person, you are basically a dog used by the government," said Jamri, who has been portrayed as just that.

Part of the issue is that the press remains hobbled. When Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja, a prominent human rights advocate, was arrested in late 2004 after giving a speech attacking the prime minister over corruption, no newspaper printed what he had said. For that people had to turn to BahrainOnline.

"This pocket of anarchy is a byproduct of half-hearted democracy," Jamri said.

 

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