Bahrain 'bans' following anti-government social media as crackdown on dissent reaches abroad

Bahrain 'bans' following anti-government social media as crackdown on dissent reaches abroad
Bahraini citizens abroad are among those targeted in new measures seeking to cut off the influence of anti-government social media accounts.
3 min read
03 June, 2019
The new measures also target Bahrainis abroad [getty]
Bahrainis have been warned that they could face legal action if they follow anti-government accounts on social media, the latest move in a crackdown on critical voices in the Gulf state.

Residents in the country were in for a surprise last week when the interior ministry told citizens by text message that "following accounts which are biased or incite discord could expose you to legal liability", Reuters reported.

The notice did not specify whether Bahrainis should expect a prison sentence due to the new measures.

Bahrain had already warned in mid-May that "promoting" such views on social media could land citizens in legal trouble, but the government's targeting of Bahrainis just for following critical accounts is a striking new development.

The country has been gripped by an ongoing crackdown against dissent since a 2011 uprising was crushed with the help of neighbouring ally Saudi Arabia.

Hundreds of people have since been imprisoned and even stripped of their nationality. Many have been subject to mass trials and opposition political parties have been outlawed.

The UN and human rights organisations have accused the authorities of torture in detention.

This latest crackdown has targeted Bahrainis - most of them living abroad - running social media accounts that are critical of the government.

The interior ministry announced in mid-May it had begun taking legals steps against Bahrainis running social media accounts from "Iran, Qatar, Iraq and some European countries such as France, Germany and Australia".

Urging people to avoid interacting with such accounts, the ministry had stated that legal measures would be taken against those "promoting their messages".

Bahrain has now made good on that promise, with the ministry tweeting last week that following and sharing content from "inflammatory" social media accounts that promote "sedition" would expose people to legal action.

An additional statement on Saturday claimed the new measures did not affect freedom of speech as such accounts "intend to harm civil peace and the social fabric".

While neither interior ministry statement identified specific accounts to avoid, social media posts circulated on WhatsApp and pro-government Instagram pages identified accounts run by Bahrainis abroad, activists told Reuters.

Among them were Germany-based human rights activist Sayed Yousef al-Mudhafdha, Australia-based activist Hassan al-Sitri, UK-based activist Saeed Shehabi and opposition media outlets Lulu TV and Bahrain Mirror.

Both Mudafdha and Sitri were charged in May in connection with their social media accounts.

Pro-government posts identifying the accounts reportedly accused some of the activists of being funded by Qatar.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt two years ago imposed a punishing economic and diplomatic blockade on Qatar over allegations that the isolated Gulf nation supports terrorism, a charge thoroughly denied by Qatar.

Part of Bahrain's state terrorism law was expanded earlier this month to include anyone "promoting, glorifying, justifying, approving or supporting acts which constitute terrorist activities" inside or outside Bahrain.

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