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Free Expression Not a Catch Phrase

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The prospects for meaningful reform in Bahrain seem even more distant now as outlets for peaceful dissent in the Kingdom are being systematically silenced. Last week, four men were charged with the "crime of insulting his majesty the king on their personal accounts on Twitter." This week, the Ministry of the Interior announced an end to "all rallies and gatherings."

In its announcement ending all rallies and gatherings, the minister explained that recent rallies "extended to callings for the overthrowing of leading national figures" and "that those acts were emptied of respect and intended humiliation, hence they jeopardize civil peace and disturb security and general order." This, he said, "couldn't be accepted in any condition."

In recent months there has been violence at some of the protests as a fringe of demonstrators clash with the police, leading to several deaths and many injuries. The space for condemning these acts is narrowing as there are fewer and fewer permitted outlets for peaceful expression. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, whose recommendations King Hamad of Bahrain promised to implement almost a year ago, includes recommendation 1724 (a), that the Government of Bahrain should "consider relaxing censorship and allowing the opposition greater access to television broadcasts, radio broadcasts and print media. The continuing failure to provide opposition groups with an adequate voice in the national media risks further polarizing the political and ethnic divide."

The Bahraini government also promised to abide by last month's U.N. Human Rights Council recommendations that it improve its record on freedom of expression. Instead, the grip on peaceful expression and protest is tightening. By stifling the possibility of legal street protests, the regime has made more illegal protests a certainty. There isn't much left for those pressing for democratic reform. They face prosecution for criticizing the ruling family on social media, as well as prosecution for attending peaceful street rallies.

In a response to a piece I wrote last week, the Bahrain Information Affairs Authority claimed that there were plenty of opportunities for opponents to voice their criticism of the government. They wrote that, "Bahrain remains a pioneer and a benchmark in the region in preserving the right to express oneself freely. The country guarantees freedom of the press (Article 24, Bahrain Constitution), with local newspapers like Al Wasat criticizing the Government daily since 2002."

The response failed to mention that Al Wasat's editor was prosecuted and suspended for three months last year. It also didn't mention that the newspaper's founder, Karim Fakhrawi, was tortured to death in custody.

Instead, the Bahraini government's response charged that "Human rights activists are often veiled by the pre-conceived expectations of their cause, overlooking the on-ground realities and attacking the country in question with catch-phrases like 'freedom of expression'... "

By regarding freedom of expression as a catch-phrase instead of a human right and by cracking down on peaceful dissent, the Bahraini government empowers the extremists it says it wants to stop.

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