Writing a series of articles for The Atlantic, Australian national Tony Mitchell’s latest account of living in Bahrain reveals that he was deported from the country for posting on Facebook about the ongoing unrest in the country.
Teaching English at Bahrain’s Polytechnic University, an institution which recently came under the auspices of the Ministry of Education, Mitchell not only lost his job, but was told in no uncertain terms that he was no longer welcome in the Middle Eastern kingdom.
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It’s no secret that Bahrain’s government has left no stone unturned in its attempts to quell any popular uprisings. It’s monitoring its citizens online, possibly with the help of a British intelligence firm, while attempts to launch an opposition satellite news channel were cut short.
While in England, Flickr was used to identify riot suspects during the London unrest in August, Bahraini authorities have employed a similar tactic, but for a far more malevolent outcome.
We learned that Bahraini staff had been identified from photographs as having attended protests and were singled out for investigation. One of the non-teaching staff was arrested and severely beaten but was able to resume work. Facebook pages were set up displaying photographs taken at demonstrations and asking pro-government supporters to identify the circled faces so that they could be traced and arrested.
Critical or libelous statements made on social networks in Bahrain are grounds for arrest, a practice which extends to other Gulf countries such as Kuwait and the UAE, but as Mitchell explains, he made no criticisms, posting statements which he saw only as an attempt to “correct false or misleading information.”
As it turns out, Mitchell’s Facebook account was being monitored, not covertly, but rather by people whom he had added as friends, and statements he had made on his private Facebook account fell into the hands of the university’s HR office. After a short and critical meeting, Mitchell was given a grace period to make arrangements to leave the country.
This was not Mitchell’s first run-in with Bahrain’s intolerance for social media. Earlier, he had uploaded videos to YouTube documenting a violent attack by Bahraini police on peaceful protesters, an act which landed him and his wife in an intimidating conversation with Bahraini security personnel.
Two weeks before the date designated for Mitchell to leave Bahrain, due to another Facebook post being “brought to the Minister of Education’s attention”, the Australian national found himself and his wife on a plane out of Bahrain far sooner than expected.
Bahrain’s struggle with social media
Bahrain’s simultaneous paranoia and use of social media is not in the least bit surprising. With services like Bambuser, which are currently blocked in the country, making it easy to instantly broadcast a brutal crackdown to the world in realtime, services like Twitter and YouTube publicizing every move a person makes, the Bahraini authorities are trying to stifle the use of the services. Whether through intimidation or simply by blocking access to these sites, Bahrain is making every attempt to ensure that the protests come to an end.
The struggle with social media in Bahrain has also taken several different forms. Not only is the government using it as a tool to monitor its citizens, Facebook and Twitter have become the grounds for heated debates between the government’s supporters and detractors.
At the same time, Bahrain’s own use of social media has almost taken on the feel of a sinister PR campaign. While monitoring statements made by anti-government protesters, Bahrain has also attempted to clean up its own social media image. The government has a strong Twitter presence, with official accounts for its ministries, including the Ministry of Interior.
Some of the Ministry’s most recent tweets refer to a funeral procession of a 15-year-old boy, believed to have been killed after being struck in the head by a tear gas canister. While mainstream foreign media accounts detail a police attack on the funeral procession, the Ministry of Interior tweeted a very different story:
Video showing involvement of groups in riots, vandalism and attempts to attack policemen after the funeral in Sitra http://youtu.be/sMYNYmiU9QM
— Ministry of Interior (@moi_bahrain) January 1, 2012
It is even believed that a supposed journalist going under the name of Liliane Khalil was hired to whitewash Bahrain’s image in the media. Since her story was uncovered on Twitter, all traces of Khalil, including her Twitter accounts, have disappeared.
With Mitchell’s story, however, whitewashing was the furthest thing from Bahraini authorities minds, and is only a chilling reminder of how social media doesn’t always work in our favour.