Bahrain: Concerns about new steps restricting use of social media

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Skyline International considers the steps taken by Bahraini authorities to restrict their citizens’ use of social media and internet websites, as restriction on freedom of expression.

A large number of citizens and residents of Bahrain received text messages on their mobile phones on May 31, from the Electronic Crimes Department, warning them from “following” accounts that they claimed were “tendentious and seditious” without specifying the accounts, and that violators -ie. followers- would be prosecuted.

“This lack of specificity opens the door to prosecuting anyone who follows any opposition account or any that carry signs of political dissent with Bahrain” Skyline researcher Meqdad Jameel said. “This is contrary to international laws that urge on the expression of opinion” he added.

The Bahraini Ministry of the Interior announced on June 1 that “sharing inciting accounts, supporting them, and commenting on them may expose people to legal accountability”.

On the same day, a Bahraini newspaper said that the Department of Combating Cybercrime summoned the prominent writer and journalist Aqeel Sewar to an investigation, “due to his rejection of this policy.”

“These decisions are a clear violation of freedom of expression, freedom to disseminate ideas, and the freedom to use the Internet with the guise of security” says Meqdad Jameel.

The decision was considered broad and loose, which could allow the prosecution of political opponents, as well as anyone who follows accounts that do not appeal to the Bahraini government.

Meqdad also says that the Bahraini authorities based these decisions on the Electronic Crimes Act of 2014 and The Organization Press, Media and Publications Act of 2002, which contain broad provisions that can criminalize acts that are criminal in their nature. They are a part of expressing opinions guaranteed by the Bahraini Constitution in Article 23.

In addition, activists and human rights organizations fear the use of anti-terrorism law, which the Bahraini king recently approved, to charge activists and dissidents for expressing their opinion on the Internet using social media.

The amended law includes 5 years’ imprisonment and a fine for anyone who “promotes, glorifies, condones, justifies, likes or encourages acts that constitute a punishable terrorist activity, whether inside or outside the Kingdom.” The text is expanded, as it implicitly provides for the prosecution of Internet and social media users, whom the government deems objectionable.”

Jameel calls on the Bahraini authorities to reverse these decisions, which breach the rights of expression and freedoms of dissemination. He stresses that this comes in the context of “freedom to seek and receive the various types of information and ideas and transfer to others without regard to the border,” which is confirmed by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

He also says: “there is a long record of suppression in the Kingdom due to expression of opinion, which must stop. Moreover, quick adoption of the international treaties and conventions signed by them must be committed to.” He also confirms the importance of allowing Bahraini citizens to use freedom of expression without fear or concern about prosecution and detention as the kingdom claims.”

The Skyline researcher asks the authorities in Bahrain to promptly amend the provisions of these loose laws and to make clear any ambiguous decisions, to include criminals and aggressors only, rather than citizens that are non-violent dissenters, and to eliminate any text that could be used to hold opponents and dissidents accountable.

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