Media freedom has been one of the prime victims of the conflict in Bahrain since 2011. Both sides in the conflict saw media as a key arena for propagating their message and winning support. The protesters turned to outlets that would listen to them such as Iran’s Al-Alam, Al Jazeera English and the new social platform of Twitter. The government and its supporters hit back and ultimately proved successful in instrumentalizing both old and new media to crush the uprising and end at least for now the threat to the entrenched elites who run the country and benefit from its political and economic system.
A central element of the government media campaign was to provide a sectarian narrative of the protest movement. It was essential for the dominant clique to present the Al Khalifa family as the central pivot of the island’s political, social, economic and religious life, s a neutral arbiter among its ethnic, religious and other social groups. The protesters were necessarily motivated by Shi’ite sectarian sentiments: they wanted to empower Shia and disenfranchise Sunnis. The ruling family, backed by Saudi Arabia, would be the saviour of the island’s fragile communal balance and diversity.
The protest movement did not in fact start as a sectarian movement, though the convergence between Shi’ite Islamist political action, pressure for reform from marginalized socio-economic groups, and democracy and rights activism is strong. With the connivance of colonial and neo-colonial power Britain, the Al Khalifa have resisted empowering Bahrainis in a process of historic ethnic, religious and social oppression. In the 1970s when leftist and Arab nationalist groups were strong the regime put the parliamentary system aside; the political arena today is dominated by Shi’ite political Islam, largely through the Wefaq organisation. The majority of those disenfranchised happen to be Shia, and most have supported Wefaq in elections. Wefaq was unable or unwilling to impose control over the more radical elements of the protest movement who were demanding a republic, and this opened the door to the regime’s sectarianisation of the conflict.
Regional and international opinion has been split. The BICI report accused the regime of torture and exaggeration of foreign sectarian intervention, but accepted the official parameters of gradual reform through negotiation. Western governments have offered varying degrees of support for the regime with token talk of the need to change the status quo. International media attention was intense in February-May 2011 and maintained a centre attention span up to February 2012, the one-year anniversary, but subsequently rapidly tapered off. Media coverage also acquiesced in the sectarian narrative, depicting the conflict as one of minority Sunni regime vs. majority Shi’ite opposition. The only objection the government had to this was the description of the ruling clique as minority, over which it fought tooth and nail with foreign media (something I witnessed myself, in numerous disputes with the Information Affairs Authority and the Minister of State for Information Affairs).
However, the regime still correctly perceived a danger in media’s insistence on placing a spotlight on Bahrain for as long as the “Arab Spring” theme retained an air of romance, and thus aggressively targeted journalists tasked with working on/in Bahrain via a smear campaign of letters of complaint to editors of foreign news outlets and trashy commentaries in local media (from my own experience, I was once accused of being “one of the helpers of velayet-e fagih”). Yet media operated within the epistemological framework sought by power with the simplistic Sunni-Shi’ite narrative, and any attempt by a journalist to write around this framing would be bludgeoned to death by an editor in London.
While media and government interest has slipped, the conflict remains. London and other foreign capitals are full of Bahraini exiles, not least among them journalists. When international attention returns, social and economic division in Bahraini society will likely be worse, making the resolution – peaceably or through violence – all the more difficult.