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Bahrain hit by mass web censorship campaign

- On January 14 this year, local newspapers in Bahrain made public a ministerial order by Bahrain’s new Minister of Media & Culture, Shiekha Mai bint Mohammed Al Khalifa that called on telecommunications companies and Internet service providers to tighten their measures on preventing access to web sites previously banned by the ministry.

According to rights groups like the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), whose web site has been blocked, “This was the first resolution issued by the minister this year… give sharp and clear instructions to telecommunications companies and Internet service providers” to prevent “all the customary ways to access blocked sites," whether through Internet addresses or through the use of alternative servers (proxies) or any other way.

The text of the minister's resolution read, “Lifting the block on any site should only be on the instructions of the minister herself."

BCHR claims that the former Bahraini Minister of Information, Jihad Bu-Kamal, was replaced by Al-Khalifa, a member of the royal family, after a television talk-show program criticized the ruling elite of corruption.

Bu-Kamal’s “crime” was allowing for the program to air on TV.

Al-Khalifa's crusade

Al-Khalifa's renewed vigilance against formerly banned sites is being billed as an action against "pornographic websites and public morality,” but activists cite several examples of censored or banned web sites belonging to human rights organizations, religious and non-religious groups, and political groups which clearly fall outside Al-Khalifa's edict.

Nabeel Rajab of BCHR told MENASSAT in an email conversation that the majority of the blocked sites in Bahrain are in fact web sites dealing with human rights and political issues in the country and “village chat forums”.

Some of the sites now inaccessible in Bahrain reportedly include independent newspaper Bahrain Times, the online current events forum Montadayat, and the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI).

Even the party Al-Demokrati, a legally registered party, has now had its site blocked, sources tell MENASSAT.

While the exact number of sites blocked in the most recent wave of Internet censorship remains unknown, some put the number as high as 100 while other sources quote between 40-60 sites.

Ali Abdulemam is the administrator of a news engine for political and social affairs in Bahrain - Bahrainonline. He told MENASSAT that the authorities have been playing a censorship "cat and mouse game" with his web site for the past seven years.

Abdulemam claims Al-Khalifa's campaign to censor and ban sites is more aggressive than before, pointing to the fact that ministry has even blocked Google Translation because it can be use as proxy to surf his site.

New forms of government intimidation

Several online sources are also accusing Al-Khalifa of using strong-arm tactics to shut down activists like Abdulemam including arrest, physical intimidation and the threat of potential legal actions.

“Whenever we open a new URL (for the site) they (the government) close it once they discover it. But this time it has been a very concerted war against all of the opposition web sites. Three activists who support of Bahrainonline - including me - were arrested for two weeks this year. And we all face charges of insulting the king and his family, which could mean 10 years in jail,” Ali told MENASSAT.

Abdulemam said Bahrain’s web censorship has reached new dimensions of sophistication, and that the authorities have started to block access to certain search words.

“There is censorship for words like 'proxy.' So if you type in proxy in Google and try to visit any link from the result you will face the 'site blocked' message,” Abdulemam told MENASSAT.

That “message” is a pop-up alert from the Ministry of Culture and Information apologizing to the visitor that the site he or she is attempting to visit “has been blocked by ministerial order."

At first the ministry provided a contact number in case the surfer felt that “the requested page should not be blocked” out of courtesy.

That phone number, says Abdulemam, has now been removed from the ministry’s revised message.

But the question remains whether the work of Bahrain’s censorship committees is actually helping to increase traffic on the offending sites

According to Rajab, BCHR’s site has even become more popular after its blocking.

Rajab has also diverted what he calls his “electronic resistance and struggle” onto the popular social networking site Facebook where he has set up a group for his organization where one can access statements and reports from the BCHR.

BCHR argues that the recent actions taken by the Bahraini authorities violate freedom of expression as stipulated in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights signed by Bahrain in September 2006.

This does not, however, mark the first time the Bahraini authorities have practiced web censorship.

In 2004, Bahraini activists protested in front of the Bahraini Communications Company (Betelco) -which has a monopoly over Internet connection service in Bahrain-to express their opposition to Internet censorship by then Bahraini Minister of Media, Nabil Jacob Al-Hamra.

Al-Hamra was quoted at the time as saying the Bahraini government banned and blocked access to those web pages it found “dissatisfactory” because the government was the country’s “defender of morality” and claimed “that certain websites are responsible for creating "domestic turmoil.”

In 2006, the Financial Times reported the Bahrain government blocked Google Earth as means of limiting the actions of opposition cyber-activists who were using Google Earth views of estates and private islands belonging to the ruling al-Khalifa family as a means of highlighting the inequity of land distribution in the tiny Gulf kingdom before November parliamentary elections that year.