HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH The Internet In The Mideast And North Africa: Free Expression and Censorship
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Encryption and Human Rights






Saudi Arabia



United Arab Emirates

The Internet is the arena of two conflicting objectives of the Bahraini government: its bid to become "the telecommunications hub of the Gulf"(74) and its determination to suppress information critical of the rule of the Al Khalifa family. Authorities have on the one hand promoted the Internet, making access available since 1995 and easy to obtain. No authorization is required to launch a web site. Several Internet cafés serve the public. On the other hand, the security services are aware that the Bahraini opposition has skillfully used the Internet to collect and disseminate information. They have blocked web sites and reportedly employ technical experts to assist in conducting surveillance of Internet use.

According to one Bahraini professor who was interviewed in February 1999 and requested anonymity, "the situation of the Internet is good, better than the overall human rights situation, because the government understands its importance for maintaining a competitive business edge, especially in a service economy." Bahrain's constitution guarantees freedom of speech, of the press, printing and publication, "in accordance with the conditions and procedure specified by the law." It also guarantees privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications. Article 26 states, "No communications shall be censored nor the contents thereof revealed except in cases of necessity prescribed by the law and in accordance with the procedures and guarantees stated therein."

Despite these constitutional provisions, authorities exercise sweeping control over all local media and make public criticism of government officials and policies off-limits. According to the U.S. State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1998, "Telephone calls and correspondence are subject to monitoring. Police informer networks are extensive and sophisticated. During the year, the Government frequently infringed on citizens' right to privacy, using illegal searches and arbitrary arrests as tactics to control political unrest....E-mail access to information is unimpeded, although it may be subject to monitoring."

Bahraini authorities did not respond to Human Rights Watch's letter and follow-up inquiries requesting information on Internet policies. Internet service is a monopoly of the public telecommunications company Batelco. Prices are moderate but can add up since there is no option for unlimited service at a fixed price.

There are conflicting reports on the extent to which authorities block politically sensitive web sites. However, various sources concur that the web site of the Bahraini Freedom Movement (<\ homepages\bahrain>)--or at least the content beyond its home page--is systematically blocked. Unlike the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain does not appear to have implemented an ambitious system to block pornography. It has preferred to encourage users concerned about sexually explicit materials to install filtering software.

Authorities are less concerned with blocking web sites than with closing down the sources of critical information leaking out of the country, according to the professor cited above. A small number of Bahrainis have reportedly been detained or questioned on suspicion of using electronic means to transmit information to political opposition groups outside the country. The best known case is that of Sayyid 'Alawi Sayyid Sharaf, a Batelco engineer. On the night of March 25, 1997 security forces raided Sharaf's home, confiscated his computer and detained him. He was held for nearly two years before being released without charge. According to a Bahraini who met Sharaf after his release, he came under suspicion not through high-tech means of surveillance but through the traditional police methods, including the interrogation of third parties and the use of informants. Amnesty International stated that Sharaf had reportedly been tortured while being held incommunicado by intelligence officials.(75)

74. See, for example, "Bahrain: The Powerhouse of the Gulf," an eight-page advertising supplement in the December 21, 1998 issue of Newsweek magazine, U.S. edition.

75. Amnesty International Urgent Action Appeal 42/97, March 25, 1997.

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© June 1999
Human Rights Watch