Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Bahrain: A Nation In Fear

By Frederik Richter    
This analysis was published in The Kuwait Times on 18/05/2011 

When I got the usual call to visit Bahrain's Information Ministry, I braced myself for complaints about my coverage of the crackdown on Bahraini Shiites protesting against the kingdom's Sunni-led government. Every other week it seemed, since I moved to the island, I have been called in for meetings with government officials over Reuters coverage of what Bahrain's Shiite majority says is discrimination by the Sunni rulers. Once, I got an angry call in the middle of the night.

This time, though, the mood was calm and somewhat friendly when I went to the ministry last Tuesday. The official, in a traditional white robe, sat down with me in a modern office with a large TV screen to monitor media coverage. Then came the announcement I had not expected. "You have to stop reporting from now," he said. "You have to leave the country within one week." The official, Sheikh Abdullah bin Nezar al-Khalifa, added that Reuters had lacked balance in its reporting during the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

The meeting lasted no more than five minutes. A story published earlier this month on disputes between moderates and hardliners within the royal family had, it seemed, crossed a red line. The authorities said Bahrain was not closing down the Reuters office in Manama and would accredit another foreign correspondent nominated by the agency.

As I prepare to leave, I can barely recognise Bahrain as the country I came to in 2008. It has been transformed by fear. When I arrived, the tiny island, linked to Saudi Arabia by a causeway, was a thriving business and financial centre. Its hotels bustled with bankers and executives flown in to discuss investment deals. Few gave much thought to discontent rumbling beneath the surface or any inkling that it would later spark mass popular protests in central Manama. Tens of thousands of people from around the world have converged on the island each year to watch the Formula One Bahrain Grand Prix, inaugurated in 2004.

Bahrain's parliament, in which the country's main Shiite opposition group Wefaq held 18 out of 40 seats, had very limited powers. Despite that, it gave the opposition voice of the Shiite majority a platform for debates and corruption probes. Activists spoke freely about complaints of discrimination in jobs and services in favour of Sunni Muslims, whose faith was aligned with the ruling family, and with Saudi Arabia. Bahrainis talked to me.

But in February, crowds mainly comprised of Shiites took to the streets. It would become weeks of protests demanding more freedom, an end to sectarian discrimination and a constitutional monarchy. Some even called for the abolition of the monarchy. The protests were inspired by revolts that had toppled rulers of Egypt and Tunisia. Manama declared emergency law in March, accused Shiite Iran of fomenting unrest and invited in troops from Sunni Arab neighbours, notably from Saudi Arabia.

What followed was a sweeping crackdown on Shiite villages, opposition activists, media and health workers. The government said it targeted only those who broke the law during protests. But state television enlarged the faces of many who took part in protests - singling them out and frightening off others. At least 29 people, all but six of them Shiites, have been killed since the protests started in February. The non-Shiites killed included two foreigners and four policemen.

The numbers of deaths may be small compared to the violence seen in other Arab countries like Syria or Libya. But it may have forever altered the psyche of the island kingdom, a tiny country with just under 600,000 citizens. In addition to those killed, hundreds more have been arrested or fired from jobs at state-owned companies. Bahrain's hotels have been empty for weeks as conferences and the Formula One grand prix were postponed or cancelled. The government has accused Iran and Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah of instigating the protests. Another culprit, in the eyes of officials, were international media, which the government saw as siding with the protesters.

Even before I was told to leave, journalists were turned back at the airport or told not to come when they inquired about visas. A crew sent in by broadcaster CNN was detained when it attempted to interview a Bahraini human rights activist. As the crackdown wore on, fear took over. Bahrainis stopped talking to me on the telephone, agreeing only to speak if I met them in person, discreetly. I met a traumatised youth who had been on the run for a month, too afraid to go to work or see a doctor. I had to find clandestine ways to meet with sources, including Westerners working as advisers to the Bahraini government, because they thought their phones and email were under surveillance.

One of the last handful still talking was Mattar Mattar, a personable parliamentarian for Wefaq until the group withdrew from the assembly in February in protest at police violence. "I'll not answer the phone during this week," he wrote me in an email after he had not answered my phone call on April 29. Just prior to that, state television had aired the purported confessions of prisoners, some of whom had alleged that Mattar had incited them to commit "crimes". He wrote in his email: "I want to keep a low profile until we understand the extent to which they are going, after they mentioned my name during those confessions on Bahrain TV.

Three days later, Mattar himself was arrested along with another former Wefaq parliamentarian. His colleagues have not been able to contact him since. Last week, two days before my expulsion order was handed to me, King Hamad said the emergency law would be lifted effective June 1, a first sign the government may be easing the crackdown. But Bahrain is already a traumatised nation. - Reuters

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