Bahrain, one of the Arab Spring countries, has been in the international news recently, owing to the controversy over Britain’s decision to grant Sheik Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa, one of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa’s six sons and the head of Bahrain’s Olympic Committee, a visa for the London Olympics. In June the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) called on Britain to deny Sheik Nasser a visa, on the basis of serious human rights violations constituting crimes against humanity. Numerous international human rights groups were greatly concerned that Nasser headed a committee that arrested, imprisoned and tortured 150 sportsmen and sports officials for participating in the February 2011 protests at the Pearl Roundabout in Manama. Some athletes stated that Nasser himself beat them.
As part of the revolutionary wave of protests in the Middle East and North Africa, the Bahraini protests were initially aimed at achieving greater political freedom and equality for the majority Shi’a population. Following the government’s deadly night raid against activists camped out at the Pearl Roundabout, protestors retook the roundabout and their demands expanded to include a call for the ruling family to step down.
Although international journalists are banned in Bahrain, Al Jazeera reporters secretly filmed the crackdown, the subsequent Saudi invasion and the attack on medical personnel at Salmaniya hospital and other Bahraini Hospitals and clinics. Their remarkable secret footage appears in the award-winning documentary Shouting in the Dark.
Saudi Forces Brutally Suppress Bahraini Protests
In March King Hamad requested military assistance from Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) and declared martial law and a three-month state of emergency. With Saudi military assistance, the Pearl Roundabout was cleared of protesters, as hundreds were beaten, arrested, tortured, murdered and disappeared. After the state of emergency was lifted, pro-democracy protestors resumed their weekly marches and protests – mostly outside Manama’s business district.
George Galloway Threatens Nasser with Citizens’ Arrest
Despite British Foreign Secretary William Hague’s assertion that any government officials who engaged in torture would be denied visas for the Olympic Games, Sheikh Nasser got his visa. Labour MP George Galloway subsequently threatened Prince Nasser with citizen’s arrest if he showed his face in Britain.
Galloway’s well-publicized warning coincided with a statement issued by the UN Human Rights Council condemning human rights abuses in Bahrain. The statement was signed by most European countries, including France and Germany, but not the UK or the US
Predictably, Hague denied a visa to the president of Syria’s Olympic committee. In Syria, Britain backs the armed insurgency. In Bahrain they, like the US, back the minority Sunni regime and supply them weapons to kill pro-democracy activists.
Obama Authorizes Multimillion Dollar Arms Shipment
In May, Obama also authorized a multimillion dollar arms shipment multimillion dollar arms shipment to the government of Bahrain – because of “security interests.” Translated, this means the Bahraini royal family, like the House of Saud, is a key potential ally on a US or Israeli attack on Iran. International analysts believe Obama is eager to crush Bahrain’s (majority) Shi’a-led pro-democracy movement in Bahrain – owing to concerns they will to go berserk if Shiite Iran is attacked.
Manama Bahrain also happens to be home to the headquarters of America’s Fifth Fleet, responsible for naval forces in the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, Arabian Sea, and coast off East Africa as far south as Kenya.
Coincidentally the US arms deal was consummated just as Bahraini neurosurgeon Dr Nabeel Rajab was about to go on trial for giving medical assistance to pro-democracy activists during the February 2011 protests.
IHRC Bus Campaign
While Galloway never caught up with Nassar to arrest him, visitors to the 2012 London Olympics enjoyed a highly informative campaign by Britain’s Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC), in which 450 of London’s iconic red buses were festooned with banners with graphic images of torture and other human rights abuses in Bahrain and Palestine.
Tracking Bahraini Dissidents with FinSpy
The other recent story out of Bahrain that has received virtually no attention in the US – except for a brief mention New York Times – is the malware a British company recently sold the Bahraini royal family to assist them in spying on dissidents. British software company Gamma supposedly developed FinSpy to assist governments agencies in “criminal investigations.” Thus it’s curious how Bahrain and other repressive Middle East regimes got hold of it to monitor pro-democracy activists. FinSpy has the capability to grab images of computer screens, record Skype chats, turn on cameras and microphones and log keystrokes. Moreover its creators specifically engineered it to elude antivirus software made by Kaspersky Lab, Symantec, F-Secure and others.
CNN Suppresses Their Own Documentary
For the most part, the US media has been totally silent on the Bahraini pro-democracy movement and Obama’s decision to back the repressive regime that seeks to crush them. On September 4, Glenn Greenwald published an opinion piece in the Guardian blasting CNN International (CNNi), the most watched English language network in the Middle East, for refusing to air the hour long documentary their own crew –led by investigative correspondent Amber Lyon – filmed in the aftermath of the government crackdown. As Greenwald reports, the commentary features graphic video footage of Bahraini security forces arresting and shooting peaceful, unarmed demonstrators, as well as explicit descriptions by pro-democracy activists of the torture they received at the hands of police and security officials.
The video footage was obtained at great cost, both to the CNN crew and the activists who consented to talk to them. While they were filming, Lyon and her cameramen were violently detained by 20 heavily-armed men in black ski masks who forced them to the ground with machine guns, seized their cameras. They were then forcibly transported to a detention facility and interrogated for six hours.
CNN International Suppresses iRevolution
On 19 June 2011 at 8pm, CNN’s domestic outlet in the US aired iRevolution for the first and only time. According to Lyons, the documentary was deliberately aimed at an international audience. Yet despite receiving several prestigious journalism awards, and despite the dangers their own journalists and their sources endured to produce it, CNN International (CNNi) still refuses to broadcast it.
In March 2012, Lyon was laid off from CNN as part of an unrelated move by the network to outsource its investigative documentaries. Last month the investigative journalist, who has more than 20,000 followers, began tweeting about CNN’s blatant censorship. “CNNi’s refusal to broadcast ‘iRevolution,’” she tweeted on August 16th, “baffled producers.” Linking to the YouTube clip of the Bahrain segment, she added “the censorship was devastating to my crew and activists who risked lives to tell [the] story.”
The following day, a representative of CNN’s business affairs office called Lyon’s acting agent, George Arquilla, and threatened that her severance payments and insurance benefits would be immediately terminated if she ever again spoke publicly about “iRevolution” or spoke negatively about CNN.
King Hamad’s $32 Million PR Campaign
Greenwald believes the call is inked to a massive, well funded PR campaign the Bahraini Royal family has undertaken to improve its global image. As reported by Bahrain Watch, the regime has spent more than $32 million in PR fees since the Arab Spring began in February 2011. One of the regimes largest contracts was with the Washington DC firm Qorvis Communications. As Time reported last November, Qorvis also does extensive PR work for Bahrain’s close allies, the Saudi royal family. Someone has leaked a CNN internal email to the Guardian about a Qorvis representative complaining to CNN about excessively favorable mention of neurosurgeon Dr Nabeel Rajab.
CNN’s Business Relationship with Bahrain
While it’s common for US mainstream outlets to bend over backwards to portray White House policy (in this case backing repressive regimes in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain), Greenwald suggests that CNN also had powerful commercial reasons for suppressing Lyon’s documentary footage. Greenwald’s article about iRevolution is accompanied by a backgrounder outlining CNN’s business relationships with the Bahraini monarchy. At the same time as CNN was supposedly covering the Arab Spring, Bahrain was a major participant in CNN’s various “sponsorship” opportunities – i.e. paid “informercials” dedicated at portraying the country in a positive light. As Greenwald documents in the second piece, the result was a number of propagandistic documentaries – promoting Bahrain as an attractive haven for western investment and King Hammad as an avid environmentalist. All were broadcast with no or minimal disclosure that the government of Bahrain had paid for them.