Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Truthiness in (and on) Bahrain

Today, no matter who you are, I've got good news for you. If you're one of those types of people who enjoys reading objective assessments of important social and political phenomena by people who have some knowledge of them, then you'll be happy to hear that Sectarian Politics in the Persian Gulf, a volume to which I contributed and about which I've been talking for a year now, will finally, after some delay, be out this Friday. (Fred Wehrey's book on the same topic -- and bearing almost the exact same title -- has also recently been published.)  In addition to my theoretical introduction, there are chapters by Laurence LouĂ«r, Kristin Smith Diwan, J.E. Peterson, Marc Valeri, and others.

On the other hand, if you're the kind of guy (or gal) who gets a kick out of blatant propaganda and/or subtle, agenda-driven changes in language and interpretation that are eventually adopted uncritically by influential media outlets like the New York Times, then you also should read on.

For the former, we have none other than Sh. Khalifa bin Salman himself, who yesterday received a group of pro-government Twitter-ers to thank them for their effective "exploit[ation] of modern technology to first and foremost defend Bahrain" -- as opposed to, say, "first and foremost tell the truth about Bahrain." The GDN reports that he "stressed the need to counter campaigns defaming Bahrain's reform project and fledgling democratic strides. 'Confront anyone tweeting to harm Bahrain and lay bare all those who sold their souls to foreign parties,'" he said. This comes, one imagines, after last week's surprising decision by South Korea not to sell tear gas to Bahrain, an opposition victory owing largely to an effective social media campaign.

Already the day before, Bahrain had established a new "anti-hate speech" committee (announced at a cabinet meeting chaired by the prime minister), charged with "proposing and adopting policies and measures, as well as preparing effective programmes, that address the problem of hate speech."  Presumably this will follow the lead of Bahrain's nebulous anti-terrorism law of 2006, which defines terrorism as any oppositional act.

Yet, more worrying than Khalifa bin Salman's personal Internet army and hate-speech mutawwa'in is a more subtle question of language noted in a recent article by Jim Lobe (which also features extended commentary by Emile Nakhleh).  The issue concerns an article featured prominently in Sunday's New York Times about the ongoing negotiations over Iran's nuclear program.  In it, the authors seem to regurgitate various unsubstantiated claims of "proof" of Iranian interference in Bahrain cited by Elliot Abrams in a recent post at CFR. The upshot is that Bahrain now appears in the article alongside Syria and Yemen as veritable, established cases of Iranian interference in the Middle East, using as primary evidence the recent Caper of the Smoking Gun Boats, which as Lobe notes has not received serious treatment except by Abrams (and of course the indomitable Mitch Belfer).

Yet here the New York Times reports the Ministry of Interior's claims as fact:
In Bahrain, where Iran has ties to several Shiite groups, including some that have carried out small-scale attacks on the police, security officials last week seized a ship headed for the country with 50 Iranian-made hand grenades and nearly 300 commercial detonators marked “made in Syria.”

The two Bahrainis captured told interrogators that they had been trained in Iran and were directed by Bahraini opposition figures based there.

The country’s public security chief, Tareq al-Hassan, said that information provided by the suspects had also led to the seizure of plastic explosives, detonators, bombs, automatic rifles and ammunition in a warehouse.
Nakhleh addresses some obvious problems in a reply to Lobe, writing,
The veracity of the NYT report on Bahrain is questionable. The two reporters should know better and should have been more nuanced. Perhaps their report was a nod to some hardliners in Washington who oppose any deal with Iran on the nuclear program. I am afraid the Gordon/Schmitt report might give the impression the NYT is falling in the same neocon-Israeli trap about Iran. ...

The weapons were seized on a boat, not a “ship” as the Times has claimed. They could have come from a location on the Iranian coast or from any other place in the northern Persian Gulf or the Shatt al-Arab estuary. We should be very careful lest we are duped by information or intelligence, which the Bahraini security services might have obtained through “interrogations” of the people arrested on the boat. It’s disappointing the Times did not take a more strategic look at Iranian-Bahraini relations and published, as fact, a claim about Iranian weapons heading toward Bahrain.
Ironically, then, the most informed and balanced coverage of Bahrain in the major Western media last week came on a fake news program, as Stephen Colbert hosted Ken Roth of Human Rights Watch. See if you can spot Roth's old-fashioned use of facts and evidence in the linked video.

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