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Notes from Bahrain: Silence is the only option

Late last month, the monarchy here in this small but significant Gulf kingdom, led by Hamad bin Khalifa, showed for the first time its willingness to budge, albeit slightly. It launched reconciliation talks with members of the opposition – both Sunni, like the royal family, and Shia, representing the majority of the non-royal population. To bring you up to speed, earlier this year, swarms of the latter took to the streets of the capital, Manama, to protest what they said was corruption, nepotism, cronyism and just flat-out theft from the public purse. They were met with violent resistance from security forces, who on some occasions fired point-blank at the demonstrators. The forces then went one step further and swept the hospitals, arresting the injured who managed to flee, along with the doctors treating them who dared to speak out about their shock in seeing such injures in this previously calm country.

Military tanks in the Bahraini capital, Manama, block a road leading to Pearl Roundabout, the central gathering point for demonstrators, March 2011 (photo: Roee Ruttenberg)

Without getting into too much detail, the protesters have a point. They deserve to be heard, and they deserve to have a voice. But in this country under its current structure, finding a platform for that voice is difficult if not impossible. International media, from day one, have had limited-to-no access to the opposition, specifically those who have been arrested. When I was here earlier this year amid the security clampdown, a military-imposed curfew (enforced by both Bahraini troops and visiting soldiers from the GCC countries, including Saudi Arabia) ensured that no cameras could record the nighttime sweeps of the poorer Shia suburbs of the city, during which an unknown amount of people from the opposition were disappeared. And the domestic media – notably Bahrain state television — dismissed the demonstrators essentially as hooligans with violent intentions. At the handful of funerals I attended, the mourners had the same message: we wanted to be heard, and this is what we got. They insist they will not be forced into silence, but do they have any other choice? There is no outlet in which to express themselves. Even the “reconciliation talks” are, by nature, restrictive.

So in Britain, as News International Corp prints its last edition of the News of the World, I cannot help but think how lightly we in the West have taken the closing of such a significant publication. Nevermind its tabloid nature, that is not the point. Rupert Murdoch has reacted brashly, putting his corporate interests, his own legacy and his brand name over the integrity of hardworking journalists. Nearly all of those journalists were not at the paper when the hacking took place, and most of them have spent the past several years putting out a good paper. If there are people who committed criminal acts, they should be investigated (and if guilty, convicted) as such. But shutting down the entire publication is a dangerous move, and one with major ramifications.

In a society that values freedom of expression, efforts to silence it – across the board – should be condemned. While the people of Bahrain are far from having a publication like the News of the World, if we are going to criticize suppression here, we must feel confident to criticize it everywhere.

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    1. max

      Roee, I found both of your topics interesting, but can’t connect them, unless you say – and I doubt you do – that closing down News of the World was an act of suppression!?

      Reply to Comment
    2. Yes, it is suppression, or in the case self-suppression. The relation is the same, like censorship and self-censorship. Murdoch should have let the law take its court. Guilty parties should have resigned on their own, or been publicly indicted and then fired. If anyone in the News Corp chain knowingly condoned and/or encouraged illegal behavior, they should be brought to justice. Shutting down NotW is just a diversion, and an unfair one to the loyal, hardworking journalists there who did no wrong. Murdoch has too much power, and he is exercising it. And in general, I do not believe in corporations limiting media, just as much as I do not believe in governments doing so.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Weinstein henry

      Well I agree with Max, and quite frankly Roee, I don’t see any connection between the brutal crackdown in Bahrain and the closing of News of the World by Rupert Murdoch, even after reading your answer.

      Reply to Comment
    4. The connection is that we in the West often undervalue institutions like NotW. Whether or not you liked the outlet, it was an outlet nonetheless, one that people in places like Bahrain would die for, quite literally.
      Britain’s over-saturated rag market drove some to engage in illegal tactics, yes, that’s apparent. But does that mean the whole lot needs to be punished, or silenced?
      The response to addressing criminal activity of some should be through the courts not the corporations.
      And those who are alarmed by one suppression should be alarmed by another.
      Yes, I know the two exist in completely different societies, but a silencing is a silencing is a silencing. And the closing down of NotW is a perk for Britain’s rich and powerful, many of whom to their annoyance were often kept in check.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Harborboy

      NotW did a lot to try and atrophy the left opinion in Britain, and Bahrain will continue to be a bloodbath as long as the US uses the nation as it’s parking garage for the Fifth Fleet. The US government would see every citizen in Bahrain dead than give up a position from which they can saber rattle, guard the oil moving through the Persian Gulf and the troops shuffling through Kuwait most easily start a war with Iran; they’ve already got Iran mostly surrounded. It was after all American weapons sold to Saudi mercenaries that have done so much of this, with the USA’s blessing.

      Reply to Comment