Freedom House has just issued its annual report on the status of freedoms and rights around the world. According to Freedom House, Bahrain’s rating actually declined over the past year. Bahrain falls short of the category of “worst offenders” and finds itself second from bottom alongside states like Belarus, South Sudan, Chad, Cuba, China and the Gaza Strip. How is this decision justified? Unfortunately the main report provides little detail, but justifies its decision with the following quote:
“Bahrain’s political rights rating declined from 6 to 7 due to grave flaws in the 2014 legislative elections and the government’s unwillingness to address long-standing grievances among the majority Shiite community about the drawing of electoral districts and the possibility of fair representation.”
The three central allegations of this quote are dangerously incorrect. We will endeavour to explain why below”
“Grave flaws in the 2014 legislative elections”
Citizens for Bahrain was one of the organizations documenting the November 2014 parliamentary elections. Foreign diplomats, the many NGOs covering the elections and the media generally agreed that the process was free and fair and that there was no evidence of political interference.
The only source of violence and attempts to unfairly influence the result came from pro-opposition militants who attacked several candidates, set fire to their property and terrorized their families, while trying to enforce a boycott. In these conditions the solid turn-out in most areas was remarkable.
The fact that 75% of those elected were new faces and that many of the more divisive figures of pervious Parliaments failed to win back their seats indicates a lack of any attempts to falsify the voting or ensure the return to Parliament of various vested interests. See the Citizens for Bahrain analysis of election results at the link here.
“…the government’s unwillingness to address long-standing grievances among the majority Shiite community about the drawing of electoral districts”
In the context of the National Dialogue process, one of the Government’s main attempts to meet opposition demands was a radical re-drawing of the elections boundaries immediately before the November 2015 elections. Almost all constituencies were affected and the result was that 90% of constituencies in the new system were of approximately equal size. See the substantial Citizens for Bahrain analysis of the boundary reforms at the links here.
“…and the possibility of fair representation”
If the opposition boycotts the elections, it can hardly then complain that it is unfairly represented in Parliament. As Citizens for Bahrainanalyses have shown, the Shia MPs who succeeded in winning the vote in spite of the opposition boycott have emerged as some of the most effective MPs in the new Parliament and the most responsive to constituents’ demands.
When we look at the full Freedom House country report for Bahrain, we find it riddled with inaccuracies and misleading claims:
For example, the media section implies that all the major newspapers are pro-Government and implies that the leading opposition newspaper, Al-Wasat was shut down. The writer initially fails to mention the newspaper and only later describes it as a “former opposition newspaper”.
The report says that “the Government owns all broadcast media outlets”, but fails to mention that there is only one broadcast outlet, Bahrain TV and its sister English language channel. Does Freedom House expect a country with only 600,000 citizens to have a dozen private TV channels?
The Freedom House repeatedly misrepresents the events of the 2011 unrest. For example, it highlights that many figures lost their jobs in the early months of 2011, but fails to mention that 100% of those working in the public sector and around 95% in the private sector were quickly restored to their jobs.
The fact that there is no reference to important reforms like the appointment of an independent Ombudsman to investigate allegations of police abuses – a very successful measure which has led to the referral of significant numbers of cases to the public prosecutor – strongly suggests that this report was not written from a balanced and objective perspective.
Allegations like the statement that “fears of Shiite power and suspicions about their loyalties have limited employment opportunities for young Shiite men” are absurd generalizations that seem to have been conjured up by the report writer after spending too long listening to opposition propaganda. In fact, in most Government departments the sectarian balance is relatively fair. A 2014 investigation estimated that in several Government ministries (notably, Health, Education and Public Works) the representation of Shia is disproportionately high.
Freedom House implies that the Government was responsible for the break down in National Dialogue talks last year, when in fact the EU, Great Britain and many other states strongly criticized the opposition for pulling out of the talks and boycotting the November 2014 elections, despite the real progress achieved.
The report attempts to paint a picture of state corruption, without any reference to the very serious efforts over the past few years to address corruption and mismanagement of public funds, including the annual Financial Audit Bureau reports, in which the Parliament has referred a series of cases to the public prosecutor. Increased regulation and scrutiny are gradually forcing public bodies to improve their performance and weed out corrupt and underperforming officials. But this is not the story Freedom House wants to tell.
The report makes several allegations of a libelous nature, which we will not repeat here, against the Prime Minister. It makes no attempt to substantiate these claims or to allow for a right of response. Despite there having been no finding of wrong-doing in the only specifically-mentioned instance.
There are many political and social issues which need addressing in Bahrain and thus there is a need for constructive criticism and impartial review of the performance of Governmental institutions. However, this Freedom House report is deeply flawed and paints a grossly unfair portrayal of the situation in Bahrain.
At the very least, the claim that the situation in Bahrain over the past four years has actually got worse would seem blatantly ridiculous to almost all reasonable Bahrainis. We have seen a steady improvement in the security situation and the lives of most Bahrainis over this period. Reforms have moved forward and the Parliament is playing an increasingly central role.
Above are just a few of the mistakes and misrepresentations concerning Bahrain from Freedom House’s country report, but this provides an idea of the systematic bias running through the report which entirely fails to represent the real progress made in reforms over recent years.
Repeated surveys and reports have actually shown that Bahrain is by far the most tolerant, progressive and liberal state in the region, where women and religious minorities enjoy real and constitutionally-enshrined rights and freedoms. This illustrates why Freedom House’s report is so fundamentally flawed and portrays a picture of Bahrain unrecognizable to all those who live there.