Bahrain: reshaping the news to fit

There was a time when Arab media habitually reshaped the news to fit their official line – deliberately omitting salient facts, grossly misrepresenting what people said, and so on. In a pre-internet age, when national borders could still be sealed against information coming from outside, they were usually able to get away with it unchallenged. But not any more.

Much has changed in the last 10-15 years and large sections of the Arab media – the savvier ones at least – now recognise that they no longer have a monopoly on news. People can get information from multiple sources and if a news organisation wants credibility it must make an effort to report accurately.

Regardless of that, the old Soviet-style approach to reporting persists in places. Syria, not surprisingly, is one but supposedly liberal Bahrain is another.

The official Bahrain News Agency is a persistent offender in this respect. One of its specialities is misrepresenting (or in some cases inventing) statements from international figures to make it appear that they support the Bahraini government's policies when in fact they are being critical.

Previously-documented examples include misreported 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.

Last November there was another example when British Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt issued a carefully-worded statement about the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) which had been set up to look into the unrest in Bahrain early in 2011 – and whose findings (along with proposals for reform) were initially accepted by the king.

While welcoming the inquiry itself, the main thrust of the statement (posted on the Foreign Office website) was to criticise a lack of progress in implementing the BICI's recommendations.

This was reported by the Bahrain News Agency under the headline "UK Minister Hails BICI Formation" without any mention of the minister's criticisms, giving the impression that his remarks had been totally supportive of the Bahraini government.

Last Saturday saw the Gulf Daily News, which bills itself as "The Voice of Bahrain", playing the same trick with a story headed "EU BACKS BAHRAIN".

Referring to the government's latest attempt at political dialogue, it says:

"Europe has praised the crucial multilateral talks being held in Bahrain as a step in the right direction. Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) said they saw new hope in the ongoing National Consensus Dialogue among political societies, legislative authority and the government.

"The Dialogue, started at the initiative of His Majesty King Hamad, has been welcomed around the world, including by the UN, US, Britain, Saudi Arabia and the Arab League.

"The MEPs from the subcommittee on human rights and the committee on foreign affairs welcomed the talks while discussing the possibilities of achieving inclusive national dialogue and reconciliation in Bahrain during a special session in Brussels ..."

Again, the picture here is one of unqualified approval – and it's thoroughly dishonest. A look at the European Parliament's website reveals a very different account:

Bahrain: MEPs welcome national dialogue but say it must include the opposition

National dialogue among Bahrain's conflicting parties is seen as hopeful by MEPs, despite concerns about ongoing violations of human rights. However, to be truly democratic, this dialogue must also include civil society and the political opposition, MEPs from the Foreign Affairs and Human Rights committees told members of Bahrain parliament (Council of Representatives) on Thursday.

"We see the recent political dialogue between communities in Bahrain as a step in the right direction. However it should involve wider range of Bahraini society, including the opposition, thereby forming solid foundations for the next elections", said Jose Ignacio Salafranca (EPP, ES), opening the exchange of views.

In debate, most MEPs harshly criticised persistent human rights violations in the country, such as pre-trial torture in prisons, lack of balance among Sunnis and Shias in the national security forces and denial of access for foreign journalists.

Others argued that Bahrain was at least "trying to move towards democracy", and allowed more societal freedoms, such as religious freedom, than its neighbours. They asked how the EU could help to improve [the] situation in Bahrain ...

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Monday, 11 March 2013