5th May, 2013 –
To many self-styled media commentators, any kind of critique of absolute freedom of expression is completely indefensible.
Therefore, when a Citizens for Bahrain article was posted on World Press Freedom Day, which didn’t follow the pack in saying that total press freedom is always a wonderful thing – we were instantly attacked by a whole range of people. Many of these critics only heard what we’d said from a few words on Twitter and instantly decided that we were a bunch of pro-Government thugs.
As is always the case; the reality is always a little more complicated. The central point that the Citizens for Bahrain writer was trying to make was that at a time of civil conflict, unconstrained media attacks and incitement from all sides can make a bad situation far worse and makes national reconciliation very difficult.
Far from being an unquestioning pro-Government mouthpiece, you can go back and see that our harshest criticism was reserved for the pro-Government mouthpieces: State TV and other loyalist media outlets.
However, in the tense and fraught atmosphere in Bahrain during March 2011 all parties were guilty of using media outlets – including the social media – to wage hate campaigns, destroy reputations and stir up sectarian tensions.
· When Iran-sponsored TV channels beamed into Bahrain stir up hostility and incite violence – is this the kind of press freedom that we want to be defending?
· When Bahraini state TV live on air denounces various personalities who allegedly backed the opposition – is this the freedom of expression that we’d like to be seeing more of?
· When opposition social media outlets and leaflets threaten kids that they’ll “suffer the consequences if they attend school on a strike day” – do we support the right of these thugs to freely threaten our children?
· When Sunni extremists denounce Shia as “filthy infidels”, “traitors” and “enemies of Islam” – is this the kind of freedom of expression, which deserves to be protected and cultivated in a civilized society?
· When graffiti on walls across Bahrain calls for the murder of the country’s leadership – is the exercise of a right to call for “Death to Al Khalifa [the ruling family]” a healthy sign of greater freedoms in Bahrain?
Let’s be clear about this: Citizens for Bahrain fully supports freedom of expression and freedom of the press. However, we are not freedom of expression ‘absolutists’: Hate speech, incitement to violence, ruining the reputations of private individuals, sectarian insults and attacks on people’s religious beliefs are not part of any freedom of expression that we know of.
We protect true freedom of expression by outlawing practices which undermine this fundamental human right. In most developed societies libel laws and other sophisticated pieces of legislation exist to do precisely this: Protecting freedom of expression while criminalizing abuses of this freedom.
Citizens for Bahrain does not just support the right to criticize those in power, we exercise this right in many of our publically available articles. However, when we criticize political figures and organizations, we are careful to avoid unsubstantiated allegations, lies, insults and offensive language. This is not self-censorship but an attempt to abide by values that the majority of those in journalism naturally abide by (to varying degrees).
During February and March 2011 we lived through a period when civil order came close to collapsing altogether and sectarian conflict began to take hold – a truly terrifying experience for all parts of Bahraini society. This period was made far worse by media attacks; incitement by Mosque preachers; threatening graffiti; and attacks through the social media.
We disagree with voices who say that as a result the Government must regulate the Internet and curtail the media – this would be bad for our society.
However, for our society to exist as a society, every free and open debate needs to have some ground-rules to prevent us from being at each other’s throats. Those who sit down as part of a debate and start throwing around insults, lies and threats aren’t a welcome part of any debate anywhere in the world.
Such ground-rules are the pre-requisites for facilitating free debate and giving people the confidence to express their honest opinions without fearing that they will be murdered by vigilantes – or locked up by an intolerant leader.
Bahrain is now going through a process of National Dialogue which must be followed up by a process of national reconciliation. Part of that reconciliation is a social contract recognizing that we must all live together in this country: Shia, Sunnis and non-Muslims are all equally Bahraini – we must respect each other and celebrate the diversity which makes Bahrain what it is.
Libelous insults and incitement to violence can be handled by the courts, but such regal recourses are only effective when 98% of citizens recognize and respect each other and thus voluntarily refrain from these abuses of freedom of expression. Those same abuses which make honest and fruitful freedom of expression difficult or impossible.