Bahrain and the art of deception

Opening the latest session of the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva on Monday, Navi Pillay, the High Commissioner, gave a wide-ranging progress report which included a section on Bahrain.

The human rights situation in Bahrain remains an issue of serious concern, she said, adding:

"I reiterate my call on Bahrain to fully comply with its international human rights commitments, including respect for the rights to freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. 

"The cancellation of the scheduled visit of the Special Rapporteur on Torture is regrettable, and important recommendations made by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry have still not been implemented. 

"I also wish to express my disappointment that the cooperation with the Government of Bahrain, which started fruitfully with the deployment of an OHCHR team in December 2012, has not developed further and an OHCHR follow-up mission has been stalled since then."

Later that day, a group of 47 countries, including the United States, issued a joint statement echoing Pillay's remarks. The statement also expressed concern about the new "security" measures announced by Bahrain in July, saying that "any new legislation to implement these recommendations must meet international standards and ensure human rights are protected".

The statement continued:

"We are also particularly concerned by the ongoing violation of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association and the repression of demonstrations. We expect officials and protesters to refrain from any violence. 

"Furthermore, we continue to be concerned about the continued harassment and imprisonment of persons exercising their rights to freedom of opinion and expression, including of human rights defenders. We are also concerned about the cases of revocation of nationality without due process, some of which might lead to statelessness. 

"Lastly, we are concerned that those alleged to have committed human rights violations are often not held accountable."

Instead of taking these criticisms on board and addressing them, Bahrain hit back. Abdul Hakim al-Shammari, chair of the parliament's human rights committee, responded:

"The comments by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights are clearly one-sided and should not be given any importance.

"It seems these comments are dictated by opposition groups as they completely ignore the reality on the ground."

His remarks were highlighted by the Gulf Daily News ("The Voice of Bahrain") in a lengthy article on Tuesday headed "UN rights chief's comments rapped".

On Wednesday the Gulf Daily News followed this up by claiming that Bahrain had "won superpower backing against 'unfair' comments" by Pillay. It said America's ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council, Eileen Donahoe, had "agreed" that Pillay's remarks did not reflect reality.

The story did not elaborate on what the ambassador had supposedly said or indicate in what ways she thought Pillay's remarks had failed to "reflect reality", but it was duly regurgitated by various other publications and websites, including Trade Arabia and the British-based Middle East Association.

There's no evidence to suggest the Gulf Daily News story might be true and, considering that the US had just put its name to the 47-country "statement of concern" about Bahrain, there's every reason to suppose the story was false. A note subsequently issued by the American mission to the UN in Geneva complained of "gross factual inaccuracies" in the story.

This might be viewed simply as a case of bad reporting but it's not a one-off. Bahrain and its media have a history of making false claims about international support.

Last November, for example, the official Bahrain News Agency twisted a statement from Alistair Burt, Britain's Foreign Office minister with responsibility for the Middle East, to make it appear that he was totally supportive of the Bahraini government.

On other occasions, Bahraini media have:

  • Misrepresented a statement from Amnesty International about the death of a 14-year-old protester.

  • Falsely claimed that UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon had declared support for the kingdom's "security" measures (i.e. repression).

  • Invented a statement from Navi Pillay about unrest in Bahrain which the official news agency later admitted to be false. 

  • Misreported a critical statement from William Hague, the British foreign secretary, to make it appear that he was praising Bahrain's government. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Thursday, 12 September 2012