Freedom of Expression and the Nature of Protests in Bahrain

September 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

Over the past few weeks, I have noticed renewed interest from news organizations and analysts about freedom of expression in Bahrain. Although there have been exceptions, the majority of outlets have renewed their allegations that Bahrain cracks down on an individual’s right to “peaceful protest” and freedom of expression. Compelling and irrefutable evidence directly contradicts these assertions.

Bahrain’s government frequently provides authorization for demonstrations at which citizens can freely assemble to express their grievances. Just last Friday, Al Wefaq organized an authorized protest that drew a considerable crowd. Like other authorized demonstrations, organizers worked with the relevant authorities to balance individual rights to freedom of expression with the needs of the remainder of the public in order to ensure that it did not affect the rights of others. Just because a demonstration is “peaceful,” does not give demonstrators the right to “peacefully” block traffic on a major highway – thereby making life miserable for other citizens going about their business. This procedure is very similar to those employed in major metropolitan areas around the world, including the United States. Major demonstrations follow a route prescribed by relevant authorities, and are restricted to a specific period of time. This allows police and other first responders to adequately plan for a variety of contingencies.

This demonstration was not an aberration; indeed, Bahrain has a long tradition of legal, authorized protests spanning over many decades. In the past 20 months specifically, hundreds of authorized protests have taken place in Bahrain. It is important, however, to draw a distinction between peaceful protest – which the government of Bahrain protects – and violent ones that endanger public safety. Every night, Bahraini police confront myriad attacks that endanger their personal safety, and the safety of other Bahrainis. The government respects individual rights, but will not tolerate tangible threats to public order.

It is also important to understand that demonstrations which begin peacefully often into violence. Beginning last May and June, demonstrations held under the auspices of a major opposition society in Bahrain have followed a disturbing pattern. Following receipt of a demonstration permit, the group would organize protests with thousands of participants. After the authorized demonstration ended, hundreds of youth armed with Molotov cocktails and other weapons would assault police officers. Although the government consistently makes attempts to facilitate mass expression, the demonstrators themselves often blur the lines between peaceful and violent protest in a way that endangers ordinary citizens.

It is also important to note that Bahrain expanded freedom of expression in response to the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry and from the deliberations of last year’s National Dialogue. As a result, His Majesty the King approved changes to Bahrain’s constitution bolstering this fundamental right. Bahrain has more work to do, but continuing to advance spurious claims in the face of direct evidence to the contrary does not contribute to the atmosphere of reconciliation in which the government is currently engaged.

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