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Crackdown on free expression results in blocking of political society's website

(BCHR/IFEX) - September 18, 2010 - In an attempt to halt freedom of expression and freedom of the press, coupled with more media blackouts and preventing the publication of accurate information, the Bahrain Information Affairs Authority has censored the website of the Al-Wefaq Society, the largest political society in the country. This move comes just a few weeks before the society was to launch its campaign to participate in the parliamentary elections. As well, there has been a strong security and media crackdown that is set to arrest political activists, clergymen and human rights defenders, and an official campaign to distort their reputations and turn the public against them.

Visitors to the website were surprised early on the morning of 3 September 2010 to find a message indicating the website's blockage - a message Internet users in Bahrain are familiar with and see every now and then while exploring discussion and blog sites, religious forums, or even social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, where opinions about the regime are posted.

The Information Affairs Authority justified its decision to block the website, stating that, "The website does not comply with applicable rules and regulations pertaining to such activity, and based on violating incidents recorded," without making any reference to such violations.

The authority also relied on Decree Law no. 47 of 2002 pertaining to press regulations, print, and publications, and the Political Societies Law no. 26 of 2005, both of which are regarded by international standards as restricting various freedoms. There is a great deal of demand placed by many international human rights organizations like Freedom House and the Committee to Protect Journalists to either adjust or abandon such regulations.

In a move to clamp down on the freedom to publish and dissent, the Information Affairs Authority informed Al-Wefaq, along with other political societies, about its alleged claims of violations in their printed newsletters, which are being electronically uploaded to the societies' websites. The authority stated that, "The authorization granted to the society was to issue a newsletter. However, what the society issues is not classified as such," without giving any justification of incidents of violations. Sources reported that the reason is due to an announcement made by the Al-Wefaq Society about its intention to launch an audiovisual service on its website.

BCHR believes that such censorship is a response by the government to what the Al-Wefaq Newsletter publicizes weekly about the violations conducted by the regime against human rights, its condemnation of the regime publishing photos of accused individuals in the media before being brought to a court of law, publishing reports of the ongoing kidnappings carried out by mercenaries of a militia-like group that reports to the National Security, and a statement made by the society's Undersecretary, who condemned the approach of the security forces in handling events that took place recently in Bahrain.

BCHR believes that such censorship aims to prevent the public from viewing thoughts and opinions different from or against the regime. The Information Affairs Authority imposes a ban on the publication or the exchange of information related to detained activists, and the authority also dictates that all civil society organizations have to support the regime, otherwise they will be questioned and harassed. The timing of this censorship is taking place prior to the election campaign to be conducted by the society to participate in the parliamentary elections, and is aimed at hindering the party's success by minimizing its ability to reach its constituents.
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