The Government of Bahrain (GoB) arbitrarily restricts the right to expression and freedom of opinion through security measures and legislation. These methods increased in the aftermath of the uprising in 2011. These tactics systematically narrow the space available for the opposition, activists, and human rights advocates to express their opinions freely. The GoB carried out widespread human rights violations while violently suppressing peaceful gatherings that were demanded extensive reforms during the Arab Spring, in 2011. Since then, authorities have arrested hundreds of individuals for expressing their opinions online or taking part in marches or demonstrations to demand their political and civil rights. Notable figures among those arrested include opposition leaders, like Sheikh Ali Salman, the Secretary-General of Al-Wefaq Society, who is currently serving a life sentence. Additionally, Hassan Mushaima, Abdul Wahab Hussein, and Dr. Abdul Jalil Al-Singace, as well as prominent clerics such as Sheikh Abdul Jalil Al-Miqdad, Sheikh Muhammad Habib Al-Miqdad, human rights activist Abdul Hadi Al-Khawaja, and others, have also been detained.
During the post-2011 crackdown, Bahrainis were stripped of their citizenship for exercising freedom of expression.Clerics, activists, and former parliamentarians forcibly deported, such as Jawad Fairooz, a former MP and director of Salam for Democracy and Human Rights. Journalists, media figures, and activists who exercised their right to express opinions and freedom of expression through social media platforms are also subjected to imprisonment.
Freedom of expression has been criminalized over the past decade in Bahrain, with the implementation of legislation and heavy-handed restrictions that silence activists, journalists, politicians, and religious leaders. For example, Article 216 of the Bahraini Penal Code criminalizes public insults directed at the National Assembly or other bodies, such as the army, courts, authorities, or public services, and is punishable by imprisonment or fines. Other laws contributing to restrictions on freedom of expression will be detailed below.
Other recent violations include:
- On January 30, 2020, criminal investigations summoned Jassim Hussein Al Abbas, a history researcher and investigator, following the publication of historical information on his blog, “The Years of Al-Jareesh,” a platform he had been writing on since 2008. He faced accusations of “spreading false information.”. On 10 November 2023, he was arrested again. After being summoned for further investigation, he was released a week later.
- On July 21, 2020, researcher and academic Dr. Nader Kazem was arrested, held in prison for a week pending investigation, and dismissed from his job at the University of Bahrain. Dr. Kazem, known for his books, intellectual contributions, and lectures, participates in conferences throughout the Arab world. He secured first place in the Bahraini Book Awards in 2003 and 2004.
Using national legislations to prevent freedom of expression
The GoB enacts laws explicitly prohibiting the expression of opinions and imposing penalties on those who do so. Article 133 of the Bahraini Penal Code states: “A punishment of imprisonment for a period not exceeding 10 years shall be inflicted upon any person who deliberately announces in wartime false or malicious news, statements or rumors or mounts adverse publicity campaigns, so as to cause damage to military preparations for defending the State of Bahrain or military operations of the Armed Forces, to cause people to panic or to weaken the nation’s perseverance.”
Bahraini legislation can punish anyone who criticizes a foreign country with “insulting a foreign country.” According to Article 215 of the Bahraini Penal Code,
… a punishment of imprisonment for a period of no more than two years or a fine of no more than BD 200 shall be inflicted upon any person who offends in public a foreign country or on international organization based in the State of Bahrain or its president or representative. The same penalty shall apply to a person who offends such organizations flag or official emblem.
Legislation also penalizes individuals who criticize ministries or entities affiliated with the Bahraini state. Expressing an opinion on this matter is construed as “insulting regular bodies.” According to Article 216, public insults directed at the National Assembly or other official bodies, the army, courts, authorities, or public interests can lead to imprisonment or fines. Articles such as (160) promoting the change of the state regime by force, (165) incitement to hatred of the regime, (173) incitement to disobedience to the laws, and (214) insulting the king, the state flag, or its national emblem also contribute to the legislations restricting freedom of expression.
Banning marches and peaceful gatherings
Since 2015, Bahrain has banned all types of political assembly with the enactment of Decree Law No. (18) of 2013 regarding public assemblies, marches, and gatherings. Article 1 of the legislation states that “It is prohibited to organize demonstrations, marches, gatherings, or sit-ins in the city of Manama”. In practice, marches and gatherings that take place are treated as illegal and can be suppressed. All applications for a license to hold gatherings submitted to police stations have thus far been rejected, constituting a violation of Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.”
Bahraini authorities are systematically marginalizing civil movements and limited the right of citizens and society overall to participate in public affairs. This crackdown has included the closure of over 30 civil and political associations. Notably, the Islamic Awareness Society was dissolved via administrative decision Ministry of Labor and Social Development No. 59 of 2016. The Islamic Resala Society faced a similar fate through Minister of Labor and Social Development No. 60 of 2016.
Absence of independent media and journalism
The GoB currently monopolizes media in Bahrain, with all news outlets being state owned or having explicitly pro-government owners. Bahrain’s single independent newspaper, Al-Wasat, was closed by the authorities through an administrative decision in 2017. This violates the Articles 24 and 28 of the Bahraini Constitution and local law, which require a judicial decision for closing any newspaper. The decision lacked a basis on real data and contradicts international charters and treaties on freedom of opinion, expression, and the press that the GoB has signed and ratified.
Government-directed programs exclude opposition voices. The GoB utilizes these media outlets to facilitate intolerance towards dissenters. Four Bahraini newspapers: Al-Watan; Al-Bilad; Al-Ayyam; Akhbar Al-Khaleej, specifically target the opposition and human rights activists. Monitoring thousands of media materials, Salam DHR found hate speech directed Shi’a activists with polarizing language, referring to them as “traitors,” “[foreign] agents,” and “terrorists.” Additionally, there was an increase of orchestrated digital campaigns, supported by pro-government accounts, in addition to other Gulf governments, on social media.
Confiscation of political rights
Bahrain’s political opposition societies can no longer officially function in the country. The Islamic Action Society was dissolved in 2012, followed by Al-Wefaq Society in 2016, and the National Democratic Action Society (Wa’ad) in 2017.These practices marginalized organized political activity in Bahrain, a crucial pillar of democracy in the country.
The GoB utilizes forms of political isolation to deprive dissidents of their political rights, via amendments to Law No. 14 of 2002 regarding the exercise of political rights and the Law on Associations, Social and Cultural Clubs, Special Committees Working in the Field of Youth and Sports, and Private Foundations issued by Decree Law No. 21 of 1989. These amendments stipulate that members of the Board of Directors must enjoy their civil and political rights (members of dissolved political societies do not enjoy their political rights for life). This violates the rights of targeted Bahraini citizens by expanding its implementation onto leaders, as well as active and inactive members of the dissolved societies.
The Law No. 14 of 2002 regarding the exercise of political rights was amended in 2018 by Law No. 25 of 2018 to exclude citizens from voting and running in the 2018 elections. This was part of a broad process, primarily aimed at confiscating political rights through political isolation. Subsequently, in the same year, Amendment No. 36 was made to the Law on Associations and Clubs, introducing a new, more stringent conditions for candidates seeking to join the board of directors of associations and clubs.
Article 1 of the legislation states that “the text of the second paragraph of Article III of the Decree shall be replaced by Law No. (14) of 2002 on the political rights, the following text, and prohibits nomination of individuals to the House of Representatives who have been:
- Sentenced to a felony, even if they were pardoned or rehabilitated.
- Sentenced to more than six months’ imprisonment for intentional offences, even if they were pardoned.
- Leaders and members of political associations dissolved by final ruling for serious violation of the provisions of the Kingdom’s Constitution or any of its laws.
- Anyone who has deliberately harmed or disrupted the course of constitutional or parliamentary life or who has terminated or left parliamentary work or whose membership was dropped for the same reasons.
Consequently, thousands of Bahraini citizens were excluded from the right to vote and to stand for election.
The GoB violates human rights and currently fails to respect international human rights treaties, conventions and legislation that preserve and protect freedom of expression. Bahraini legislation includes articles and laws that contravene the Bahraini Constitution, the Charter of Human Rights, and international human rights treaties. Those who exercise their right to freedom of expression can face severe punishments, including the revocation of Bahraini citizenship.
Bahraini authorities persist in denying citizens the right to exercise their political rights, particularly after dissolving opposition political societies and detaining their leaders. Moreover, the GoB exercises control over all media outlets and the country lacks new media and press laws. Individuals expressing their opinions on social media face legal repercussions through legislation that criminalizes freedom of expression.