Ali Abdulemam in Bahrain: freedom of expression on trial where it really matters

In Europe and the US we revel in controversies over the slightest interference with journalists’ right to express themselves and worry about whether investigative journalism is declining. Spare a moment for places where the arguments haven’t ever been able to reach that stage.

Ali Abdulemam is a blogger in Bahrain. He went on trial today for “diffusing fabricated and malicious news on Bahrain’s internal situation to spread rumours and subvert the Kingdom’s security and stability.” He was arrested in early September and there has been a vigorous campaign for his release. He belonged to the admirable Global Voices Online network. There are excellent detailed pieces from the Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic.

A few years ago, it looked as if the tiny autocracies of the Gulf were starting finally to relax their powerful grip on politics and the media. Younger and more liberal members of ruling families were coming into positions of power. A profitable boom was producing the self-confidence to experiment, however cautiously, with a little openess.

With the economic crash, most of those gains have been reversed. Most strikingly in Bahrain, where the Sunni-Shia population balance has always been more precarious and potentially unstable than in the other Gulf states.

The trial of Ali Abdulemam and his fellow defendants, which cannot be fully reported, is a sad symbol of what has gone wrong. He’s accused of a “crime” which isn’t a crime in most societies. And we can’t even see the evidence.

The conditioned reflex of Gulf ruling families is to lump liberals, radicals and jihadis all into one bundle and all into one prison cell. A short study of the history of almost anywhere will show them that this is exactly how authoritarian regimes go about undermining their own legitimacy.


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