Astroturfing the Arab Spring

This is a cross post from the Ministry of Truth

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 inDerbyshire 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 (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 tosee 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 WatchAmnesty 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