Protesters shout slogans and wave national flags at an anti-government rally in Manama, Bahrain. (AP file)

Bahrain’s government seems determined to sabotage its own image.  It complains that it’s misunderstood and unfairly criticized, but then continues to make decisions that baffle or enrage its international allies. Foreign criticism of Bahrain’s poor human rights record is increasing.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Commission of International Religious Freedom cited “increased rhetoric from official media outlets inflaming sectarian tensions and demonizing the Shi’a Muslim population,” and a failure to hold any senior official to account for torture.

insight hrf INSIGHT: Bahrain   Losing the PR War on Human RightsThe criticism is much more detailed and sharper than in last year’s report and matched the tone of the U.S. State Department country report on Bahrain two weeks ago which also revealed a growing frustration with the regime in Manama, a regime which continues to shoot itself in the foot with a series of terrible PR blunders. Last week, for example, the Bahraini government announced that United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez will not be permitted to visit Bahrain this month. Mendez’s trip, scheduled for May 8-15, had been on the books since he was last refused access in early 2012. At that time, the regime made repeated promises that things would be different for Mendez’s May trip.

After he received notice of the cancellation, Mendez issued a statement noting, “Due to the sensitivity of my mandate there will never be a perfect time for my visit, something that is true for any country that I may visit. … The Government is facing many challenges in light of the on-going tensions in Bahrain. I would have conducted my visit in the spirit of cooperation and expected the Government to share that approach; regrettably, this does not appear to be the case.”

“Since 2011, not one senior regime official has been held accountable for the widespread torture of detainees in custody.” – Brian Dooley, Human Rights First

Mendez’s trip cancellation is certainly a shocker, even to those of us who have become accustomed to these access games. It also comes just weeks after the appointment of Bahrain’s Crown Prince to the post of deputy prime minister, a development that initially read as a signal to Washington that some real reform might be about to start.

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Riot police arrest a protester during an anti-government rally in Bahrain's capital, Manama, December 17, 2012.

The bottom line is that despite their repeated promises from Bahrain’s leaders, not much has changed in the Kingdom. Just after the Crown Prince’s appointment, he and the rest of Bahrain’s cabinet endorsed proposals to introduce a five-year jail sentence for anyone convicted of insulting the king. Such moves try the patience of international allies and sympathy for the regime seems to fading fast.

Earlier this month, the United Kingdom, Bahrain’s close ally, released its 2012 annual report on human rights and democracy. It featured Bahrain’s torture record, noting that impunity was a “deep-rooted problem.” It also stressed that the “current number of officials being investigated is low, and actual convictions even lower.”

Two days after the U.K. report was released, a weighty joint report titled “Bahrain: Fundamental reform of torture without end?” was published by international NGOs specializing in torture. As their report was published, Redress and the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims noted “significant evidence that torture and ill-treatment by state officials has continued in Bahrain…”

Then two days later came the heaviest blow, with the U.S. State Department 2012  Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. While the U.S. government has often failed to find its voice on criticizing the Bahrain government, there was no mistaking the harshly disapproving edge to the report, citing by name over a dozen prominent human rights defenders and activists who had been harassed or imprisoned by the regime. It also identified the fundamental issue that, “The most serious human rights problems included citizens’ inability to change their government peacefully….”

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A protester holds up a cardboard replica of a Formula One race car at an anti-government rally in Budaiya, near Manama, April 19, 2013. (Reuters)

Many within Bahrain’s government and their supporters had hoped the staging of last month’s Formula One race might help redeem the Kingdom’s human rights image. To the contrary, journalists allowed into the country to cover the event more often than not opted to cover anti-government protests. In one instance, the Bahrain regime duly responded by expelling a British television crew that including prominent correspondent Rageh Omaar.

For the reporters who were permitted to stay, their television coverage – including broadcasts by Al Jazeera, the BBC and other major outlets – featured protests against the regime prominently.  The press covered peaceful mass rallies opposing the race – including one with over 10,000 marchers – and some smaller violent protests.  Media also covered tear gas attacks by the police, “preemptive arrests” where dozens of people were rounded up before the race to quash dissent, as well as attacks on the security forces with gasoline bombs and other missiles.

A quick Google search of the international press coverage the day after Bahrain’s F1 showed more than half of the first 50 news hits included the words “protests” or “police clashes” or similar in the title. The race proved yet another PR blunder for the regime, which is keen to present itself as a largely stable ally for the U.S., U.K. and others. The coverage was no ad for tourism to Bahrain and showed the Kingdom’s reality all too well. This is presumably not the sort of exposure the Bahrain government had hoped would result from such an internationally popular event.

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A protester flashes victory signs during an anti-government rally in Manama April 19, 2012, ahead of last year's Formula One race in Bahrain. (Reuters)

Forbidding entry to outside observers and trying to hide serious problem from media following international sporting events won’t change the facts on the ground in Bahrain. The talks involving some government and opposition figures appear to be producing nothing of substance. Leading political dissidents remain in jail. Since 2011, not one senior regime official has been held accountable for the widespread torture of detainees in custody.

The American author Alan Harrington once said that, “Public relations specialists make flower arrangements of the facts, placing them so that the wilted and less attractive petals are hidden by sturdy blooms.”  Bahrain is losing the PR war not because the other side is better at it, but because there are fewer and fewer sturdy blooms to hide its many wilted flowers. It can’t just say there will be reform. It needs to abandon attempts to shore up its image with cosmetic changes and actually implement some of the promises it has made, such as releasing peaceful political prisoners and granting Juan Mendez and international NGOs immediate access.

This post has been authored exclusively for MEV by Human Rights First.

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 INSIGHT: Bahrain   Losing the PR War on Human Rights

Brian Dooley

Brian Dooley is Director of Human Rights First’s Human Rights Defender Program.