Bahrain: No Internet spring

Ministry of Interior and National Security Apparatus

Three years after the start of a popular uprising, the Bahrain monarchy continues to use all the resources at its disposal to gag those calling for democratic reforms and respect for human rights. As the Internet is now the space preferred by Bahrainis for expressing their demands and sharing information, the authorities are constantly trying to improve their Internet surveillance and censorship methods in order to contain the dissent and protect Bahrain’s international image. The two government bodies at the heart of the online crackdown are the Ministry of Interior and National Security Apparatus (NSA).

The interior ministry’s armed wings

The Ministry of Interior (MoI) is the central Internet control body in Bahrain. It is assisted by two units that are under its authority – the Central Informatics and Communication Organization (CICO) and the General Directorate for Combatting Corruption and for Electronic and Economic Security.

Originally created to build a database of citizens’ personal details, the CICO has evolved over the years, receiving powers by royal decree that are much more extensive and include blocking websites on a list compiled by the ministry. Its premises house the Internet surveillance and censorship equipment, including the BlueCoat servers that enable ISPs to implement the ministry’s blocking decisions.

According to the NGO Bahrain Watch, the CICO also uses technology provided by Gamma International, including its FinFisher software suite. FinFisher can install spyware on the computers and smartphones of targeted dissidents, controlling their webcams, logging keystrokes and recording phone and Skype calls. The servers that recover and store this information are also located inside the CICO’s premises.

The Directorate for Combatting Corruption and for Electronic and Economic Security was created in 2012 with the task of combatting the “crime of defamation,” especially on online social networks. It calls on the public to report “online smear campaigns tarnishing the reputation of national symbols and leading public figures.”

Bahraini-style NSA

While the Ministry of Interior operates openly, the same cannot be said of the National Security Apparatus (NSA). The general public knows little about this entity although, ever since its creation by royal decree in 2002, it has played a growing role in monitoring and cracking down on government opponents and human rights activists. It answers directly to the prime minister and its director is named by royal decree.

The NSA’s official mission is identifying and monitoring any activity that could endanger the kingdom and its institutions, and any threat to the country’s security. The NSA’s distinguishing characteristic is its autonomy. It does not depend on any ministry, not even the interior ministry, but uses the latter’s resources to accomplish its mission and to track down dissidents. It has authority over the CICO and the information ministry.

In addition to its surveillance capacities, the NSA has the power to arrest and imprison Bahraini citizens. To do this, it can use the Special Security Forces, a paramilitary force of 20,000 men, of whom 90 per cent are mercenaries.

Draconian decree-laws

The legislation governing the media consists of the Press and Publications Law (decree-law No. 47) and the Telecommunications Law  (decree-law No. 48), both dating from 2002. These two laws permit Internet control and censorship. Posting content that criticizes Islam or the king or that incites violence or the overthrow of the government is punishable by up to five years in prison.

Information providers hounded

Since the start of the pro-democracy demonstrations in February 2011, many websites have been blocked for posting articles critical of the regime. They include the sites of the Al-Quds Al-Arabi daily and the Bahrainmirror. YouTube and Facebook pages containing videos of demonstrations or of the Bahraini police using violence against demonstrators have also been blocked, as have censorship circumvention software such as “Hotspot Shield” and even “Google Translate.”

The netizen Zakariya Rashid Hassan died in detention on 9 April 2011, a week after being arrested by the NSA on charges of inciting hatred, disseminating false news, promoting sectarianism and calling for the overthrow of the government on online forums. He ran an online forum (www.aldair.net/forum/) that provided information about the village where he was born, Al-Dair. The site has been closed since his arrest.

Freelance photographer Hussain Hubail was arrested on 31 July 2013 and was charged three weeks later with “managing (electronic) accounts calling for the government’s overthrow,” “promoting and inciting hatred against the government,” “inciting others to disobey the law,” and calling for illegal demonstrations. He is still being held and has reportedly been mistreated and tortured in detention. On 16 February 2014, a judge postponed hearing his case for a month.

Jassim Al-Nuaimi, a blogger who was very active during the uprising, was arrested at his home by masked plainclothesmen on 31 July 2013 on charges of using social media to incite anti-government hatred and call for illegal demonstrations. After being held for several days at the General Directorate of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), he was transferred to Dry Dock prison on 3 August, only to be transferred back to the CID and then taken before a prosecutor and allegedly forced to sign a confession. He was also reportedly mistreated and tortured. As with Hubail, a judge postponed hearing his case for a month on 16 February 2014.

The blogger Mohamed Hassan was released a few weeks after being arrested on 31 July 2013 but is still facing charges of “managing (electronic) accounts calling for the d overthrow,” promoting and inciting hatred against the government, inciting others to disobey the law, and calling for illegal demonstrations.

Abduljalil Al-Singace, a blogger who ran the Al-Haq Movement’s human rights bureau, has been held since March 2011 and is serving a life sentence that was upheld on appeal on 4 September 2012. He is one of 13 opposition leaders and activists convicted of “creating and running a terrorist group aimed at changing the constitution and system of monarchy (…) by force,” “being in contact with a foreign terrorist group that acts in the interests of a foreign country and carries out hostile actions against Bahrain,” and “raising funds for this group.”