Bahrain is experiencing one of the region's highest Internet penetration rates. The democratization process has been losing momentum, which has had a negative impact on freedom of expression on the Web. The authorities have adopted the course of a massive filtering campaign, but the country's netizens are proving to be inventive when it comes to circumventing censorship and are mobilizing to defend their rights.

Reinforced filtering systems

The authorities' technological innovation efforts go hand-in-hand with a need to tighten their control of the Web. A rigorous filtering policy is being enforced on the Internet that targets political and religious content considered to be obscene or which casts doubt on the dignity of the royal family. The blocked websites include opposition sites, sites deemed anti-Islamic, discussion forums on taboo subjects, and news sites.

Since 2009, the new Minister of Culture and Information, Sheikha Mai Bint Mohammed Al-Khalifa, a member of the royal family, launched a "anti-pornography campaign" that led to the closing of 1,040 websites. Some of them, however, had nothing whatsoever to do with the subject. The blocking of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) website, and that of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, reveals the government's intention to attack websites critical of its policies, the royal family, or even the Parliament. In fact, Google Earth has been rendered inaccessible so that the Bahrainis could not learn the places in which the royal family resides. Certain pages of YouTube, Wikipedia and Facebook have also been banned as a result of this campaign. A precedent: the Twitter account of a foreign national critical of the regime was blocked in early January.

Highly resourceful netizens remain under surveillance

The use of proxy servers is very common. Close to 200 Bahraini bloggers frequently voice their opinions on the Web, but they usually prefer to remain anonymous. The authorities regularly monitor Internet websites and the use of censorship circumvention tools. They do not hesitate to pursue or harass "irritating" journalists and bloggers.

The country's cyber cafés are subject to increasing surveillance. Their control is coordinated by a commission consisting of members from four ministries, which ensures strict compliance with the rules concerning non-admittance of minors and computer station visibility.

Prohibitive laws and decrees

Internet laws are particularly harsh. The Internet is regulated by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, which was established by the Telecommunications Law No. 47 of 2002. Its scope of application was extended to online media. A 2008 amendment eliminated advance censorship and prison terms for reporters, but journalists and Internet users can still be prosecuted by virtue of the anti-terrorist law or the penal code.

Two decrees specifically addressing the Internet were adopted in 2009. The first allows websites to be shut down without a court ruling, merely upon a decision of the Minister of Culture. The second requires the growing number of Internet service providers – of which there are now about 20 – to block websites featuring pornographic material or likely to incite users to violence or racial hatred.

In 2007, the Ministry of Information's Printing and Publications Department ordered the registration of all Internet websites hosted in the country or abroad featuring information about the kingdom's business, arts, religion, politics, etc. This decision met with significant opposition from a large number of Internet website owners. The latter tacitly decided not to register their sites, thereby committing an act of civil disobedience via the Web. They regarded the government's requirement as an assault on freedom of expression under the pretext of protecting state security. The regime then rescinded that reversed its position, and registration became optional.


This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.