Sunday, April 3, 2011

Winning the Battle, Losing the (Media) War: Al-Wasat Edition

Fresh off our observations yesterday that the Bahraini government is growing increasingly aware that it is losing the media battle being waged between it and anti-government activists, we find out today that the country's only remaining non-state newspaper, Al-Wasat, has been "suspended." It did not print a Sunday edition, and its online website is blocked from inside Bahrain. This comes several weeks after armed thugs physically attacked the newspaper's printing presses at its office, forcing it to relocate temporarily and greatly reduce its content.

It is worth quoting at length the article that announces the decision--a piece in the state-run Gulf Daily News that shouts subtly, "NEWSPAPER SUSPENDED"--for sheer comedic value:

MANAMA: Bahrain last night suspended Al Wasat newspaper for publishing "unethical and unprofessional" reports.

The Information Affairs Authority also referred the newspaper to concerned authorities for an inquiry.

A programme on Bahrain TV last night detailed a report listing the "unprofessional and unethical practices" committed by Al Wasat, which were characterised by "lies, defamation and plagiarism".

The newspaper also published, with malicious intent, news and photographs on recent security developments, which were unauthentic, fabricated and misleading, directly targeting Bahrain's security and stability, according to the report.

The report also revealed compelling evidence that these news stories and photographs were published between March 25 and 28.

This represents a crime punishable by laws governing Press and publications in Bahrain, according to the report.

The TV programme also said the newspaper used old news published in Arab and local newspapers as well as on websites and online forums.

It then changed names of people in the stories with fictitious ones, according to the report.

The Central Informatics Organisation sent a letter to the Information Affairs Authority in this regard after checking names mentioned in the newspaper reports and found them to be fictitious, the Bahrain TV programme added.

So essentially through intrepid investigative work the government-run BahrainTV has "uncovered" some unethical media practices by its only rival. Go figure. Oh, and there's the small detail of the paper's Editor-in-Chief, Mansur al-Jamri ($10 if you can guess which village he's from), who just so happens to be the son of the late spiritual leader of the 1990s Shi'a intifada and ranking marja' in Bahrain, Sh. 'Abd al-Amir al-Jamri. But I doubt that's relevant.

Assuming al-Wasat remains "suspended" indefinitely, and given that the left-leaning Al-Waqt went under a few months ago, we are left in Bahrain with 5 main local newspapers by my count, all of them government-owned or -affiliated. There's Akhbar al-Khalij (pro-Prime Minister), Al-Bilad (ditto), Al-Watan (close to the Royal Court), Al-Ayam (owned by a former information minister-turned-adviser to the King), and The Gulf Daily News (English-language sister paper of Akhbar Al-Khalij).

If one desires some indication of the sort of unbiased reporting we can expect from this bunch, consider this story I highlighted in a previous post on the uncanny terrorist-thwarting ability of the Bahraini government. It was centered around this instructive terrorist network flow chart helpfully crafted by the incisive Al-Watan newspaper in its Sept. 16, 2010, issue (indeed I have saved it all this time because I knew it would come in handy):

In case you cannot follow the logic of the chart here, it goes something like this: there is a terrorist network led by Hasan al-Musheimi', Sh. Muhammad al-Miqdad, as well as this ghostly figure "Others?" with a question mark to get you thinking. Next we have the second-tier members of the terrorist network: two guys named Sami Mirza and Ahmad 'Abdallah along with more "Others?" This shadowy group that may or may not consist of only 4 people then engages in various terrorist activities, including but not limited to lighting cars on fire, using some sort of a burning stop-watch, lighting houses on fire, and slicking the sidewalk down with ice thereby making people trip and fall. (This is the last and more illustrative level of the flow-chart.)

The suspension of Al-Wasat therefore represents the government's latest riposte in the ongoing "media jihad" waged by the opposition. Recently it had resorted to arresting international news crews, including one from CNN, but presumably it's found that local outlets like Al-Wasat are less (i.e., un-) able to fight back. Of course, such a move is likely only to drive individuals to the Internet for their news, where coverage is much more polarized and rumor-based. It will be interesting to see, then, whether this crackdown on print media will be extended now into cyberspace.

Update: the aforementioned editor-in-chief of Al-Wasat, Mansur al-Jamri, has released the following statement (sorry for the bad translation):

"Brothers and sisters, perhaps all of your have seen what Bahrain TV aired Saturday night (April 2, 2011). What they published is untrue and is targeting Al-Wasat because it raised(?) the Waving Flag of Bahrain [a pro-government campaign; not sure of the meaning here]. ... We are preparing to issue a statement about what was published on Bahrain TV. I attempted to call into Bahrain TV many times, but they wouldn't let me respond. Thank you."

The Arabic (via the Facebook page of the February 14 movement):

نقلاً عن ثورة 14 فبراير يوم الغضب في البحرين) على الفيس بوك)

كلمة الدكتور منصور الجمري رئيس تحرير جريدة الوسط لموظفيه ارسلها عبر البريد الإلكتروني : الاخوة والاخوات العاملين ربما جميعكم شاهد ما بثه تلفزيون البحرين مساء السبت 2 أبريل 2011، ومانشر ليس صحيحا وهو استهداف للوسط لأنها رفعت راية البحرين خفاقة.حقوقكم باذن الله محفوظة، ولكننا سنتوقف عن الاصدار بناء على ما نشر في تلفزيون البحرين.ولقد حاولت الاتصال... بالتلفزيون كثيرا ولم يسمحوا لي بالرد.شكرا لكم ... وبحفظ الله.

Longer and more substantive statements are quoted in this piece from the Associated Press.

Update 2: In case you hadn't yet fully appreciated the political connotations of all of this, here is a video making its way around pro-government forums showing a ceremonial burning of the final issue of Al-Wasat (or Al-Wasakh--"dirt"--as he calls it) "on the occasion of the stoppage of [its] publishing" by some guys in al-Busaiteen that really like the Crown Prince:

Update 3: I agree the updates are getting ridiculous now, but it cannot be ignored that the ban on Al-Wasat turned out instead to be a coup, its editor-in-chief and two other top editors having been replaced.

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  1. I'm interested in the allegations they made. Were the articles actually plagiarized? Obviously even if they were it doesn't mean the paper should be shut down - the New York Times and Washington Post have both had plagiarism scandals recently - but it's an interesting question nevertheless.

  2. That I cannot answer. But what better way to find out than a drawn-out, highly-politicized court case?

  3. I think we've seen this coming. It's just another indication to how much illegitimate this government is! I am surprised that some of the AlKalifas are UK and US educated. Obviously, they've learnt nothing.

  4. Alright let's keep it civil if we can.

  5. I'm truly shocked about this, let's look at incentives and motivations:

    1. The government clearly gains by shutting down Al Wasat, especially in this manner where they are found guilty of unethical behaviour as it shamshes the credibility of the newspaper and the opposition altogether, and makes foreign media doubtful quoting opposition sources from now on. Al Wasat still operating has raised a lot of questions from hawks, if Iran involved, foreign plot, etc.. Why are they still printing? This is laid to rest now.

    2. Al Wasat doesn't gain anything publishing fake news and it knows it's carefuly being monitored so I would think the editor-in-chief is carefuly reviewing everything. How can this happen then? There are so many cases of abuses that newspaper doesnt need to fabricate. Furthermore, the actual fake and plagirised news articles that were published aren't something you would risk your reputation on because they're not that "inflammatory" , juicy, or "worth forging". Also note, you don't see foreign media quoting from Al wasat much anyway.

    So again, why? If the accusation by the gov is true: the paper wanted to inflame further anger in the opposition, then they can do this much more effectively in social media (and can be untraceable)- why actually print it in their papers!? It's just plain dumb.

    This can lead to the following conclusions:

    1. A rogue writer decided to write these articles - would be intersting to see if it was all the same author.

    2. These articles were injected by the gov (I know sounds like conspiracy theory, but with what BTV has been doing, this shouldnt be that alarming). Again, how can you shut a newspaper down and escape international pressure? This is the perfect way.

    In the case of rogue writer, the question would be did they intentionally do it or were they pressured to do it?

    Now effectively the state controls all media internally (by also cracking down on bloggers) and can externally control foreign media by regulating visas and monitoring their activity (as we saw in the CNN crew being arrested a few days ago). This is also a good way to polish BTV's tainted reputation and take away some of the dirt it's being getting.

    I'm not ruling out the paper was malicious - but for whatever objectives it wanted to achieve, it could'be done this with social media. I cannot help but draw a parallel between this and 2connect as well.

  6. I left out one bit of detail from my comments above, the speed of this "investigation" and unravelling the facts is quite phenomenal- lends support to the injection or rogue writer theory.

  7. For your info, neither of Akhbar Al Khaleej or Gulf Daily News are govt-owned.
    Another failed attempt of anti-state elements twisting the truth!!!

  8. I'm aware of the vagueries surrounding the ultimate ownership of Akhbar al-Khalij. Hence my parenthetical qualification "supposedly."

  9. I'll change it to government-affiliated. How about that?

  10. @Anonymous: the rogue writer theory seems to be the argument of al-Jamri:

    "'They (the authorities) say someone was working with them, so maybe something was planted so they could come back at us. All we can say is we never intended to fabricate news,' Mr al-Jamri said."

  11. Even if a rogue writer did manage to insert 5 - 6 bogus stories in a matter of 5 days, it just goes to prove that the editors were not checking their facts. This questions the credibility of the "news" coming out of this publication. If a rogue writer can fill the paper with false articles, then so can a writer trying to maximize anti-government sentiment.


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