Silencing Bahrain’s Journalists

June 2, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Lamees Dhaif tells Al Jazeera: “They can stop us from telling stories now, but they can’t stop us forever.”

By Matthew Cassel

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An Iranian waves Iran and Bahrain flags as a ship filled with aid for the people of Bahrain departs from Bushehr, some 746 miles south of Tehran May 16, 2011. Picture taken May 16, 2011.

REUTERS/Mohsen Norouzifard/Mehr News/Handout

Women and local journalists have long been at the forefront of the movement for change in the Arab world. Bahrain’s Lamees Dhaif is both, and for nearly a decade she has been an outspoken proponent of social justice in the small island nation.

Thirty-four-year-old Dhaif spoke to Al Jazeera in Doha this past weekend about her career as a journalist and the recent government crackdown that has silenced her and many others in the Gulf kingdom.

Dhaif described herself as a “golden child” when she entered journalism in 2002, saying she had “everything it takes” to be a great journalist. Since then, Dhaif has become one of the most recognised and controversial personalities in Bahrain’s media.

“I came with an aggressive approach to journalism,” she said. “In Bahrain, they try to avoid conflict in journalism; they don’t want to upset anyone. It’s a small society, so if you write about someone you’re going to upset his relatives.”

Dhaif, a Shia Muslim who comes from a “conservative” background, said: “I criticised the [Shia religious establishment] and I’ve been the target of my own people.”

“And then I started to target the powerful and the elite, someone had to say something.”

“For example, we have 21 sports unions in Bahrain, and the heads of 17 of them are members of the royal family,” Dhaif explained. “I asked, ‘why is the chairman of the swimming union so fat?’ I asked the same for the minister of health, ‘shouldn’t he be a doctor?’”

“In the beginning I was smart, a little bit spoiled. I wanted to prove myself. When I put my hand deeper in my work and went for the first time to the villages and saw poverty and injustice, I started to despise myself for thinking that working in the media was something that could make me a star.”

“I started addressing issues that made the powerful want to destroy me, I made many enemies,” Dhaif said.

Dhaif described the government’s campaign to ruin her reputation. Statements were made about her physical appearance and behaviour, claims she dismisses as rumours and attempts to “shrink” her in the conservative Gulf society.

Dhaif said these attacks backfired and “only made me more determined, and spreading the rumours made me more known”.

However, lately Dhaif has been silenced since the government imposed martial law to suppress a protest movement that began in February of this year.

Bahrain, a key ally of the US and home to its Navy’s fifth fleet, is controlled by a Sunni monarchy. Shia, who make up more than two-thirds of the population, lack rights and are excluded from most high-level political positions and the security forces.

The protest movement resembled those in Tunisia and Egypt which came before and succeeded in ousting the respective heads of both states. In Bahrain, protesters demanding change started their own Tahrir Square-like sit-in at Manama’s Pearl Roundabout, before they were forcibly removed. The government later destroyed the roundabout.

One month after protests began, the Bahrainmonarchy imposed martial law and invited thousands of Saudi troops to help quell the uprising.

Since that time, more than 30 protesters have been killed and hundreds of protesters, human rights advocates, medical workers, journalists and others have been rounded up and imprisoned by the authorities. Rights groups have condemned the widespread detention and subsequent torture and abuse reportedly happening inside the prisons. At least four detainees have died in custody, and two have been sentenced to death. Amnesty International has condemned military trials in Bahrain as “politically motivated and unfair”.

Dhaif described how her family had come under threat for her work, and, encouraged by her relatives, she took a break from writing since martial law began. “I stopped [practicing journalism] because I didn’t want to be arrested. If I’m arrested now, how can I document the others in jail? Everyone is arrested.”

Since the crackdown began, many activists, journalists and others have gone into hiding to avoid arrest by authorities – which posted pictures of the “wanted” on various media outlets, including Facebook.

“We reached a point where we’re scared to even write on our laptops because it’s the first thing they take when they invade our homes. So, I keep all the stories in my head,” Dhaif said.

“They can stop us from telling stories now, but they can’t do it forever. Even the dead will tell their stories.”

The government and state media in Bahrain have portrayed the protest movement as sectarian and attempted to justify the crackdown by warning against Iranian influence in the country. In April, Bahrain’s foreign minister said that foreign troops would stay in the country to remove any “external threat”, that he associated with Iran.

According to Dhaif, in Bahrain, “there are some Shia who have a lot. And there are a lot of Sunnis suffering, but they’re scared to [act] because the government makes them scared of Iran”.

“The government says that the protesters want Iran [to controlBahrain] … it’s an old song that they’ve sung for decades. What the hell do we want with Iran?

It is not a civilised government, it is a dictatorship. We wish a better life for the people in Iran.”

Dhaif asked: “Do all Sunnis want a government like Saudi Arabia? So why do they accuse any Shia of wanting a religious government like in Iran?”

Unlike protests in other Arab nations, Dhaif contends that the majority of protesters in Bahrain do not want “isqat al-nitham” (to overthrow the regime), but rather reform and equal rights.

“Bahrainis are peaceful and intelligent people, and we deserve a modern country. We deserve to be treated as citizens and partners, not followers and slaves. We don’t want to rule, we don’t want their palaces, their thrones, their Rolls Royces and their jets, we just want to be treated with dignity.”

“If the government said ‘let us keep our thrones, and we’ll offer you the dignity you deserve’ the people would accept,” Dhaif said.

“If the government gives them real rights there would be no need to protest. [The government] should stop being so stubborn – they can’t change the people, but the people can change them.”

Al Jazeera

13-23

Bahrain or Bust?

April 14, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Pakistan should think twice before meddling in the Middle East.

By Miranda Husain

Less than three weeks after Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) forces, led by Saudi Arabia, entered Bahrain to aid the anti-democracy crackdown there, dignitaries from both oil-rich kingdoms did their separate rounds in Pakistan. The royal houses of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are nervous, and they need Pakistan’s mercenaries, and—if necessary—military muscle to shore them up.

This is a remarkable turn of events for Asif Ali Zardari, who had been trying since he was elected president in 2008 to secure Saudi oil on sweetheart terms. He had been unsuccessful in his efforts because the Sunni Saudis view his leadership with some degree of skepticism. It also doesn’t help that Zardari, a Shia, is big on improving relations with Shia Tehran. Riyadh now appears inclined to export oil on terms that better suit cash-strapped Islamabad. Manama, too, wants to play ball. It wants increased defense cooperation and has pledged to prioritize Pakistan’s hopes for a free-trade agreement with the GCC in return. But Zardari and his Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, should fight the urge to get mired in the Middle East.

Pakistan already has a presence in Bahrain: a battalion of the Azad Kashmir Regiment was deployed there over a year ago to train local troops, and retired officers from our Navy and Army are part of their security forces. Media estimates put the number of Pakistanis serving in Bahrain’s security establishment at about 10,000. Their removal has been a key demand of protesters in the kingdom. Last month in Islamabad, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani reportedly assured Bahrain’s foreign minister, Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, that Pakistan would offer more retired manpower to help quell the uprising against Bahrain’s Sunni rulers by its Shia majority. Gilani’s spokesman was unable to confirm the pledge.
Islamabad’s support to the tottering regime in Manama is not ideal.

“It’s like our version of Blackwater,” says Talat Masood, a former Pakistan Army general, referring to Bahrain’s recruitment drive in Pakistan. “We’re doing [in Bahrain] exactly what we have been opposing here,” he says. Pakistan, he maintains, has no business in trying to suppress a democratic, people’s movement in another country. Short-term economic gains cannot be the only prism through which Pakistan views its national interests, he says.

Pakistan has a long history of military involvement and training in the Arab world. Its pilots flew warplanes in the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict, and volunteered for the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Involvement in Bahrain’s current strife would not be the first time that Pakistan has used its military might to thwart an Arab uprising against an Arab regime. In 1970, future military dictator Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, then head of the Pakistani military training mission in Jordan, led his soldiers to intervene on the side of Amman to quash a Palestinian challenge to its rule.

Some Bahraini opposition groups have called on the U.S. to intervene to get the GCC troops out of their country, fearing it could become a battleground in a Saudi-Iranian battle for regional supremacy. They stress that they share no real affinity with the theocratic regime in Shia-majority Iran, while noting that a number of Bahraini Sunni Muslims have also come out in the streets to call for greater reforms.

Pakistani involvement, therefore, could result in it being embroiled in a proxy war, with serious implications for its own security interests.

The issue of Iran is important, but there’s a deeper issue, according to author Noam Chomsky. “By historical and geographical accident, the main concentration of global energy resources is in the northern Gulf region, which is predominantly Shia,” he told Newsweek Pakistan.

Bahrain, he points out, neighbors eastern Saudi Arabia, where most of the latter’s oil is. “Western planners have long been concerned that a tacit Shia alliance might take shape with enormous control over the world’s energy resources, and perhaps not be reliably obedient to the U.S.”

Bahrain, which like Pakistan was designated a major non-NATO ally by the George W. Bush presidency, is home to the Fifth Fleet. It is the primary U.S. base in the region and allows Washington to ensure the free flow of oil through the Gulf, while keeping checks on Iran.

Chomsky believes that Pakistani presence in Bahrain can be seen as part of a U.S.-backed alliance to safeguard Western access to the region’s oil.

“The U.S. has counted on Pakistan to help control the Arab world and safeguard Arab rulers from their own populations,” says Chomsky.

“Pakistan was one of the ‘cops on the beat’ that the Nixon administration had in mind when outlining their doctrine for controlling the Arab world,” he says. Pakistan has such “severe internal problems” that it may not be able to play this role even if asked to. But the real reason that Pakistan should avoid this role is so that it can stand on the right side of history, alongside those who are fighting for democracy.

Newsweek

13-16

It’s All Spelled Out in Unpublicized Agreement–Total Defeat for U.S. in Iraq

December 18, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

Courtesy Patrick Cockburn

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On November 27 the Iraqi parliament voted by a large majority in favor of a security agreement with the US under which the 150,000 American troops in Iraq will withdraw from cities, towns and villages by June 30, 2009 and from all of Iraq by December 31, 2011. The Iraqi government will take over military responsibility for the Green Zone in Baghdad, the heart of American power in Iraq, in a few weeks time. Private security companies will lose their legal immunity. US military operations and the arrest of Iraqis will only be carried out with Iraqi consent. There will be no US military bases left behind when the last US troops leave in three years time and the US military is banned in the interim from carrying out attacks on other countries from Iraq.

The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), signed after eight months of rancorous negotiations, is categorical and unconditional. America’s bid to act as the world’s only super-power and to establish quasi-colonial control of Iraq, an attempt which began with the invasion of 2003, has ended in failure. There will be a national referendum on the new agreement next July, but the accord is to be implemented immediately so the poll will be largely irrelevant. Even Iran, which had furiously denounced the first drafts of the SOFA saying that they would establish a permanent US presence in Iraq, now says blithely that it will officially back the new security pact after the referendum. This is a sure sign that Iran, as America’s main rival in the Middle East, sees the pact as marking the final end of the US occupation and as a launching pad for military assaults on neighbours such as Iran.

Astonishingly, this momentous agreement has been greeted with little surprise or interest outside Iraq. On the same day that it was finally passed by the Iraqi parliament international attention was wholly focused on the murderous terrorist attack in Mumbai. For some months polls in the US showed that the economic crisis had replaced the Iraqi war as the main issue facing America in the eyes of voters. So many spurious milestones in Iraq have been declared by President Bush over the years that when a real turning point occurs people are naturally sceptical about its significance. The White House was so keen to limit understanding of what it had agreed in Iraq that it did not even to publish a copy of the SOFA in English. Some senior officials in the Pentagon are privately criticizing President Bush for conceding so much to the Iraqis, but the American media are fixated on the incoming Obama administration and no longer pays much attention to the doings of the expiring Bush administration.

The last minute delays to the accord were not really about the terms agreed with the Americans. It was rather that the leaders of the Sunni Arab minority, seeing the Shia-Kurdish government of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki about to fill the vacuum created by the US departure, wanted to barter their support for the accord in return for as many last minute concessions as they could extract. Some three quarters of the 17,000 prisoners held by the Americans are Sunni and they wanted them released or at least not mistreated by the Iraqi security forces. They asked for an end to de-Baathication which is directed primarily at the Sunni community. Only the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr held out against the accord to the end, declaring it a betrayal of independent Iraq. The ultra-patriotic opposition of the Sadrists to the accord has been important because it has made it difficult for the other Shia parties to agree to anything less than a complete American withdrawal. If they did so they risked being portrayed as US puppets in the upcoming provincial elections at the end of January 2009 or the parliamentary elections later in the year.

The SOFA finally agreed is almost the opposite of the one which US started to negotiate in March. This is why Iran, with its strong links to the Shia parties inside Iraq, ended its previous rejection of it. The first US draft was largely an attempt to continue the occupation without much change from the UN mandate which expired at the end of the year. Washington overplayed its hand. The Iraqi government was growing stronger as the Sunni Arabs ended their uprising against the occupation. The Iranians helped restrain the Mehdi Army, Muqtada’s powerful militia, so the government regained control of Basra, Iraq’s second biggest city, and Sadr City, almost half Baghdad, from the Shia militias. The prime minister Nouri al-Maliki became more confident, realizing his military enemies were dispersing and, in any case, the Americans had no real alternative but to support him. The US has always been politically weak in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein because it has few real friends in the country aside from the Kurds. The leaders of the Iraqi Shia, 60 per cent of the total population, might ally themselves to Washington to gain power, but they never intended to share power with the US in the long term.

The occupation has always been unpopular in Iraq. Foreign observers and some Iraqis are often misled by the hatred with which different Iraqi communities regard each other into underestimating the strength of Iraqi nationalism. Once Maliki came to believe that he could survive without US military support then he was able to spurn US proposals until an unconditional withdrawal was conceded. He could also see that Barack Obama, whose withdrawal timetable was not so different from his own, was going to be the next American president. Come the provincial and parliamentary elections of 2009, Maliki can present himself as the man who ended the occupation. Critics of the prime minister, notably the Kurds, think that success has gone to his head, but there is no doubt that the new security agreement has strengthened him politically.

It may be that, living in the heart of the Green Zone, that Maliki has an exaggerated idea of what his government has achieved. In the Zone there is access to clean water and electricity while in the rest of Baghdad people have been getting only three or four hours electricity a day. Security in Iraq is certainly better than it was during the sectarian civil war between Sunni and Shia in 2006-7 but the improvement is wholly comparative. The monthly death toll has dropped from 3,000 a month at its worst to 360 Iraqi civilians and security personnel killed this November, though these figures may understate the casualty toll as not all the bodies are found. Iraq is still one of the most dangerous places in the world. On December 1, the day I started writing this article, two suicide bombers killed 33 people and wounded dozens more in Baghdad and Mosul. Iraqis in the street are cynical about the government’s claim to have restored order. “We are used to the government always saying that things have become good and the security situation improved,” says Salman Mohammed Jumah, a primary school teacher in Baghdad. “It is true security is a little better but the government leaders live behind concrete barriers and do not know what is happening on the ground. They only go out in their armoured convoys. We no longer have sectarian killings by ID cards [revealing that a person is Sunni or Shia by their name] but Sunni are still afraid to go to Shia areas and Shia to Sunni.”

Security has improved with police and military checkpoints everywhere but sectarian killers have also upgraded their tactics. There are less suicide bombings but there are many more small ‘sticky bombs’ placed underneath vehicles. Everybody checks underneath their car before they get into it. I try to keep away from notorious choke points in Baghdad, such as Tahrir Square or the entrances to the Green Zone, where a bomber for can wait for a target to get stuck in traffic before making an attack. The checkpoints and the walls, the measures taken to reduce the violence, bring Baghdad close to paralysis even when there are no bombs. It can take two or three hours to travel a few miles. The bridges over the Tigris are often blocked and this has got worse recently because soldiers and police have a new toy in the shape of a box which looks like a transistor radio with a short aerial sticking out horizontally. When pointed at the car this device is supposed to detect vapor from explosives and may well do so, but since it also responds to vapor from alcohol or perfume it is worse than useless as a security aid.

Iraqi state television and government backed newspapers make ceaseless claims that life in Iraq is improving by the day. To be convincing this should mean not just improving security but providing more electricity, clean water and jobs. “The economic situation is still very bad,” says Salman Mohammed Jumah, the teacher. “Unemployment affects everybody and you can’t get a job unless you pay a bribe. There is no electricity and nowadays we have cholera again so people have to buy expensive bottled water and only use the water that comes out of the tap for washing.” Not everybody has the same grim vision but life in Iraq is still extraordinarily hard. The best barometer for how far Iraq is ‘better’ is the willingness of the 4.7 million refugees, one in five Iraqis who have fled their homes and are now living inside or outside Iraq, to go home. By October only 150,000 had returned and some do so only to look at the situation and then go back to Damascus or Amman. One middle aged Sunni businessman who came back from Syria for two or three weeks, said: “I don’t like to be here. In Syria I can go out in the evening to meet friends in a coffe bar. It is safe. Here I am forced to stay in my home after 7pm.”

The degree of optimism or pessimism felt by Iraqis depends very much on whether they have a job, whether or not that job is with the government, which community they belong to, their social class and the area they live in. All these factors are interlinked. Most jobs are with the state that reputedly employs some two million people. The private sector is very feeble. Despite talk of reconstruction there are almost no cranes visible on the Baghdad skyline. Since the Shia and Kurds control of the government, it is difficult for a Sunni to get a job and probably impossible unless he has a letter recommending him from a political party in the government. Optimism is greater among the Shia. “There is progress in our life, says Jafar Sadiq, a Shia businessman married to a Sunni in the Shia-dominated Iskan area of Baghdad. “People are cooperating with the security forces. I am glad the army is fighting the Mehdi Army though they still are not finished. Four Sunni have reopened their shops in my area. It is safe for my wife’s Sunni relatives to come here. The only things we need badly are electricity, clean water and municipal services.” But his wife Jana admitted privately that she had warned her Sunni relatives from coming to Iskan “because the security situation is unstable.” She teaches at Mustansariyah University in central Baghdad which a year ago was controlled by the Mehdi Army and Sunni students had fled. “Now the Sunni students are coming back,” she says, “though they are still afraid.”

They have reason to fear. Baghdad is divided into Shia and Sunni enclaves defended by high concrete blast walls often with a single entrance and exit. The sectarian slaughter is much less than it was but it is still dangerous for returning refugees to try to reclaim their old house in an area in which they are a minority. In one case in a Sunni district in west Baghdad, as I reported here some weeks ago, a Shia husband and wife with their two daughters went back to their house to find it gutted, with furniture gone and electric sockets and water pipes torn out. They decided to sleep on the roof. A Sunni gang reached them from a neighboring building, cut off the husband’s head and threw it into the street. They said to his wife and daughters: “The same will happen to any other Shia who comes back.” But even without these recent atrocities Baghdad would still be divided because the memory of the mass killings of 2006-7 is too fresh and there is still an underlying fear that it could happen again.

Iraqis have a low opinion of their elected representatives, frequently denouncing them as an incompetent kleptocracy. The government administration is dysfunctional. “Despite the fact,” said independent member of parliament Qassim Daoud, “that the Labor and Social Affairs is meant to help the millions of poor Iraqis I discovered that they had spent only 10 per cent of their budget.” Not all of this is the government’s fault. Iraqi society, administration and economy have been shattered by 28 years of war and sanctions. Few other countries have been put under such intense and prolonged pressure. First there was the eight year Iran- Iraq war starting in 1980, then the disastrous Gulf war of `1991, thirteen years of sanctions and then the five-and-a-half years of conflict since the US invasion. Ten years ago UN officials were already saying they could not repair the faltering power stations because they were so old that spare parts were no longer made for them.

Iraq is full of signs of the gap between the rulers and the ruled. The few planes using Baghdad international airport are full foreign contractors and Iraqi government officials. Talking to people on the streets in Baghdad in October many of them brought up fear of cholera which had just started to spread from Hilla province south of Baghdad. Forty per cent of people in the capital do not have access to clean drinking water. The origin of the epidemic was the purchase of out of date chemicals for water purification from Iran by corrupt officials. Everybody talked about the cholera except in the Green Zone where people had scarcely heard of the epidemic. .

The Iraqi government will become stronger as the Americans depart. It will also be forced to take full responsibility for the failings of the Iraqi state. This will be happening at a bad moment since the price of oil, the state’s only source of revenue, has fallen to $50 a barrel when the budget assumed it would be $80. Many state salaries, such as those of teachers, were doubled on the strength of this, something the government may now regret. Communal differences are still largely unresolved. Friction between Sunni and Shia, bad though it is, is less than two years ago, though hostility between Arabs and Kurds is deepening. The departure of the US military frightens many Sunni on the grounds that they will be at the mercy of the majority Shia. But it is also an incentive for the three main communities in Iraq to agree about what their future relations should be when there are no Americans to stand between them. As for the US, its moment in Iraq is coming to an end as its troops depart, leaving a ruined country behind them.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq’, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006. His new book ‘Muqtada! Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia revival and the struggle for Iraq’ is published by Scribner.

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