Astroturfing the Arab Spring

Yesterday evening saw something of a first for libel tourism in England and Wales as the official Bahrain News Agency announced that the Bahraini government intends to sue The Independent newspaper for libel over its coverage of the brutal suppression of pro-democracy protests in the tiny Gulf state:

Manama, June 14 (BNA)Bahrain has today decided to sue the British Independent newspaper for repeatedly publishing wrong and defamatory information to tarnish its image.

The Information Affairs Authority has commissioned a UK-based legal firm to file a case against the British daily. “The Independent has deliberately published a series of unrealistic and provocative articles targeting Bahrain and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”, Publications director-general and acting press and external media director-general Nawaf Mohammed Al-Maawda said. He accused the British daily of orchestrating a defamatory and premeditated media campaign against both countries, failing to abide by professional impartiality and credibility in its one-sided news-coverage and reports. In this regard, he cited particularly leading Independent Middle-East based reporter Robert Fisk. Mr. Al-Maawda called upon all media to observe accuracy and objectivity and project the true image, adding that all doors remain open to visit Bahrain and gauge the real situation on the ground as the Kingdom is steadily regaining normality and stability.

Whether this is merely ineffectual posturing by the Bahranis remains to be seen.

Public authorities cannot sue for libel in England following the ruling in Derbyshire County Council vs Times Newspaper Ltd in which the Law Lords held, quiet rightly that ‘it was of the highest public importance that a democratically elected governmental body should be open to uninhibited public criticism‘ and that ‘the threat of civil actions for defamation would place an undesirable fetter on the freedom to express such criticism‘. What goes for a democratically elected governmental body must surely go double for an unelected, autocratic near-absolute monarchy that’s recently fell twenty-five places on the Reporters Without Border World Press Freedom Index to 144th in the world following the closure of the country’s main opposition newspaper and the death of one of its-co founders in police custody.

Since putting down its own pro-democracy protests amidst reports of serious human rights abuses and the arrest of opposition supporters, journalists – local and foreign – and bloggers, the Bahrainis have been desperate to regain control of their global image to the extent that a small astroturfing operation has emerged onto the internet, one with what appears to be direct links to the ruling Al-Khalifa family.

The focal point of this operation seems to be a well-produced website called, somewhat ironically, the ‘Bahrain Independent‘. Judged on looks alone, one could be forgiven for taking this to be a well-established online newspaper but look a little more closely as you’ll find that it only appeared for the first time in April 2011 – the site’s Whois records show that the domain name was registered on March 26 2011 using a commercial privacy service to conceal the identity of the site’s owner.

Pretty much all of the site’s output since April – 95 articles at the time of writing – consists of either pro-government propaganda or vehement attacks on media organisations, journalists and human rights organisations that have been involved in the reporting the suppression of pro-democracy protests in the country and the human rights abuses that followed. Unsurprisingly, the Independent’s Middle-East correspondent, Robert Fisk, has been the focus of several recent articles containing allegations of ‘libellous’ misreporting of events in Bahrain, as has the Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times journalist, Nick Kristof. Martin Samuel, a sports correspondent at the Daily Mail, has also managed to attract the ire of the Bahrain Independent after criticising the Grand Prix Drivers Association for failing to put forward a clear moral argument against rescheduling the Bahrain Grand Prix later in the year.

On of the site most prolific ‘correspondents’, with 26 out a total of 96 articles to date, is a Dr. Saqar Al-Khalifa, who has a twitter account and a blog at WordPress.com (first post March 25th 2001). Dr Al-Khalifa professes that neither he nor anyone else in Bahrain is actually pro-government, rather they’re ‘pro-fairness, pro-equality, pro-justice, pro-truth, and pro-enforcement’ – but then what else would you say after being invited to pay your regards to the King.

Dr. Al-Khalifa is certainly an intriguing character. He doesn’t appear to see much utility in democracy but he wants us all to know that Bahrain is now a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament, even if one of the parliament’s two houses is filled entirely by the King’s appointees and the unelected Prime Minister – who’s also the King’s uncle – has been in post since 1971. He’s happy to defend the summary demolition of Shi’a mosques, thinks the demise of the opposition newspaper AlWasat was all its own fault and seems to regard J Jonah Jameson as the archetypal Western newspaper editor – much as I like the character he doesn’t swear anything like enough to be a real newspaper man like Paul ‘vagina monologue’ Dacre.

He’s also a busy man. According to his Twitter profile he’s a Professor of International Relations, a triathlete and the President of the Bahrain Road Runners, where one assumes he works closely with the BRR’s other (honorary) President, Shaikh Ibrahim bin Abdulla Al Khalifa – and it’s here that the plot thicken because, on checking with both the International Triathlon Union and the Africa Triathlon Union, the only Bahraini triathlete registered with them under the name Saqer Al-Khalifa turns out to be a ‘Shaikh Saqer Sslman Saqer Al Khalifa‘ – although I suspect that ‘Sslman’ is probably a typo and the full name is, in fact,  Shaikh Saqer Salman Saqer Al Khalifa. If I’ve got the right Saqer Al-Khalifa here then he’s altogether too modest in relating his sporting achievements as here he is enjoying a bit of motorsport success alongside Shaikh Salman bin Isa Al Khalifa, who last year became the CEO of the Bahrain International Circuit, where the Bahrain Grand Prix would have been held had it gone ahead.

In all, its rather like running across a British pro-monarchy website run by Eddie Windsor and Dave Jones.

Still, if you’re not happy with the reporting of events in Bahrain by the BBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera, The Independent, the New York Times, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International or Reporters Without Borders then why not pay Dr Saqar Al-Khalifa a visit at the Bahrain Independent?

It’s all lies, he’ll tell you – just don’t say that Bob Fisk sent you.

Oh, and on the off chance that the Bahraini’s government’s English lawyers are looking in, to save you the time and effort or writing, any complaints about this article should be referred to the reply given in Arkell vs Pressdram.

  • Saqer Al-Khalifa

    Thank you for the article. I like your effort in your modest research. I just want to say that Shaikh Salman Bin Isa is not my brother, though I wish he was. He’s a great guy. Feel free to contact me through my twitter account or elsewhere if you’d like to ask me more questions.
    All the best!

    • Baloo

      dude! why are u so mean?? god help u.. no need for all the hate.. we’re all brothers and sisters

  • Anonymous

    I would like to tell the author of this article to come visit us in Bahrain and get slapped in the face by reality. Then after coming here I hope he sees the truth with his own eyes and stand with it side. This is the “ministry of truth” right? come check it out bro. You’ll be amazed by how much lies are said about bahrain via int’l media and NGOs.

  • Anonymous

    I would like to tell the author of this article to come visit us in Bahrain and get slapped in the face by reality. Then after coming here I hope he sees the truth with his own eyes and stand with it side. This is the “ministry of truth” right? come check it out bro. You’ll be amazed by how much lies are said about bahrain via int’l media and NGOs.

  • This article shows us what modern ‘journalism’ is all about. Surfing the web from your comfy office and not bothering to check up on the facts. Where are the good old days when journalist visited the places they were writing about and actually talked to all sec of society, instead of going directly to a village in the middle of nowhere? How about someone asks about the rest of Bahrain’s population? The countries majority, which loves their country and king? You know the same guys who built schools and hospitals for the masses. That made our country the most educated and advanced in the region with the highest literacy rates? The same people who built homes for thousands of families who could not afford them. It’s so sad that we are living in a world where king with a heart of gold can get his name ruined because of lazy journalists looking for a nice story to tell.

  • This article shows us what modern ‘journalism’ is all about. Surfing the web from your comfy office and not bothering to check up on the facts. Where are the good old days when journalist visited the places they were writing about and actually talked to all sec of society, instead of going directly to a village in the middle of nowhere? How about someone asks about the rest of Bahrain’s population? The countries majority, which loves their country and king? You know the same guys who built schools and hospitals for the masses. That made our country the most educated and advanced in the region with the highest literacy rates? The same people who built homes for thousands of families who could not afford them. It’s so sad that we are living in a world where king with a heart of gold can get his name ruined because of lazy journalists looking for a nice story to tell.

  • Mariam H Alqassimi

    again and again every one and any one writinf about our country As If they lived here or experienced it at least…
    it really amazing when u read somthing about your country that someone wrote thinking it s RIGHT!!!!
    FYI Mr writter… we bahrainis love our country ,well defened our country agains all the media nosie, u need to report the truth to sustain your reputation at least…
    we love our king and suddenly ppl consider it a wrong thing!!!
    Loyal , to this land
    loyal to our king
    loyal to all bahrain

  • Anonymous

    Nothing quite so entertaining as having the astroturfers turn up on an article about astroturfing.

    For the record, nowhere do I suggest that Saqer Al-Khalifa is Shaikh Salman Bin Isa’s brother – I’m well aware that familial relationships and loyalities tend to run far wider in scope in the Arab world than would be considered the norm in many Western countries.

    Still, it nice to see that Saqer’s on the ball and is quick off the mark in organising a ring-around.

    • unity_ministry
      While you just assumed all the replies to your article where by astroturfers who long to try to fix the spoilt reputation of our monarchy, you have effectively shot yourself in the foot. I am not quite sure what it would take for you to open your eyes and realize that these ‘astroturfers’ are the people of Bahrain. And unfortunately you’re a just a confused person sitting in your office with no idea of what is really going on in the world.  Your comment ‘Still, it nice to see that Saqer’s on the ball and is quick off the mark in organizing a ring-around.’ Summarizes the fact that you like so many other western ‘Journalists’ have become so lazy you cannot bother to properly study what you are writing about and make wild accusations that are entirely baseless.

    • Saqer Al-Khalifa

      Hello,
      I may have miss-read. Sorry about that. I’m not organizing anything, these are all loyal Bahrainis who have lived through the horror caused by protesters, who turned from pro-democracy to pro-anarchy. The pro-democracy ones are progressors who love the stability and security of this nation.
      Again, I say, if you needed to know more about me, all you have to do is ask. I will openly give you my belief and opinion, and you can write it down.
      I wish you success, good guidance, and fairness reporting.
      Thank You.
      Saqer

  • Pingback: Unity()

  • Pingback: Khalaf()

  • Pingback: [ CrazyLurve ]()

  • Pingback: R U 4 Rights 2()

  • kka00

    Yet another article but with the same tone and the same prespective we Bahraini’s have reading for the last couple of months. Is it fair to write about a country and ruin its image without even visiting it ?! What are the facts you have , if any, and from which sources? If you are really interested in revealing the truth visit us and meet both sides ; the 450,000 who gathered in Al Fateh mosque to protect Bahrain and the rest who are trying to implement a foriegn agenda. Until then, stay away from our Bahrain and stop your false accusations!

  • Pingback: Mohammed A.()

  • Pingback: Gareth Winchester()

  • Pingback: Alex Comninos()

  • Pingback: lpdutchboy()

  • Pingback: Angry Brave Heart()