There was a time when government media in the Arab countries could publish dishonest or misleading reports and expect to get away with it. Readers inside the country, having little access to information from outside, would be none the wiser.
That changed years ago with the arrival of satellite TV and the internet but the official Arab media have generally failed to move with the times. They still imagine they can pull the wool over people's eyes, even though each time they do so their credibility is damaged further.
The government of Bahrain is a regular offender in this respect. I have previously documented cases of "official" news reportsmisrepresented or even made up statements from Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, William Hague, the British foreign secretary, and Amnesty International. The point of these misrepresentations is always the same: to make them appear uncritically supportive of the Bahraini government.
The latest example involves Alistair Burt, Britain's Foreign Office minister with responsibility for the Middle East. On Friday, Burt issued a statement to mark the one-year anniversary of the report from the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI). This was the inquiry that looked into the unrest in Bahrain early last year – and whose findings (along with proposals for reform) were initially accepted by the king.
Last week's anniversary prompted a series of reports from NGOs, all complaining about a lack of effort on the part of the Bahraini government to implement the BICI's recommendations.
The Bahrain News Agency, presumably scraping around to find something to counter these criticisms, latched on to Burt's statement.
"UK minister hails BICI formation" is the headline, followed by several paragraphs depicting Burt's remarks as totally supportive of the Bahraini government: "He also paid tribute to His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa for adopting the BICI recommendations as a launchpad to forge ahead with reforms," etc, etc.
As invariably happens with official news reports of this kind, there are no direct quotes from Burt. By avoiding quotation marks the writers seem to think they can edit and embellish statements as they see fit.
In fact, Burt said nothing about "a launchpad to forge ahead with reforms" – merely that Britain "acknowledged" the king's "commitment" to "deliver reforms". In the cautious diplomatic language used by Burt, acknowledging the king's commitment to reform does not necessarily imply the king is keeping to it.
Similarly, Burt is reported as having "condemned the acts of terror and mounting street riots and sabotage, describing these tactics as totally unacceptable". His actual words were: "There have also been increasingly violent protests on the streets, which are unacceptable."
Unhelpfully (but perhaps wisely from the Bahrain News Agency's point of view) the BNA report does not include a link to Burt's original statement on the Foreign Office website. If it did, readers would see a very different story.
Far from heaping unalloyed praise on Bahrain's government, Burt echoed many of the cirticisms made by the NGOs and others – though none of that was mentioned in the BNA's version. Here is the relevant part:
"We are concerned by some of the recent decisions taken by the Bahraini government, particularly on human rights, and we’re clear that there are areas where progress on implementation has been too slow and others where it is lacking.
"Much more needs to be done on relaxing censorship and allowing the opposition greater access to media, on integrating personnel from all communities in Bahrain into the security forces, and question marks remain on senior level accountability for the deaths and the allegations of torture following the unrest of 2011. The Bahraini government has itself acknowledged that more work still needs to be done and the UK stands ready and willing to assist in whatever way we can.
"The Commission’s report revealed deep-rooted issues that pose significant challenges for the Bahraini government and will take time to fully address, as will a change in behaviour and culture. There have also been increasingly violent protests on the streets, which are unacceptable.
"As Bahrainis today mark the first anniversary of the landmark BICI report, we urge the Bahraini government to show a renewed sense of energy and commitment to implementing all the recommendations, and we call on all community leaders to play a constructive role in this process for the long-term stability of the kingdom."
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 26 November 2012.