A huge, glossy, photographic history of the Bahrain uprising presents a misleading narrative that seeks to whitewash the regime, finds Dominic Kavakeb
20/20 (Miracle Publishing 2012), 2 volumes, 981pp.
There are many ways a dictatorship can present a respectable face to the world and its allies, ranging from crude lies to clever and subtle techniques to dominate the narrative of a given event. 20/20, a picture book documenting the protest movement in Bahrain of February and March 2011, is the latter. It is nothing more than a beautifully painted whitewash of history.
The Bahraini dictatorship is one that cares strongly for its image internationally. Unlike its neighbours in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain is not blessed with the same level of natural resources and wealth and therefore cannot rely solely on the tactic of silence for oil. Whereas Saudi will brazenly violate human rights, Bahrain promotes itself as the liberal alternative in the Gulf. As former Formula 1 Champion, turned unofficial Bahrain defender, Sir Jackie Stewart, recently noted, women can wear bikinis and men can wear shorts!
But Bahrain has a lot to hide and, as a regional leader in internet connectivity, the rise in social media usage has created a serious problem for the authorities in keeping up its image. The world watched the Arab Spring being played out on Twitter and Bahrain was no different, with activists using their feeds to provide minute-by-minute updates about the latest abuses against protesters. Nabeel Rajab, the currently jailed human-rights defender, has over 200,000 followers, with a list of the most influential Arabs on Twitter placing him at number thirteen, above any other tweeter from the Arab Spring.
Such exposure has caused serious problems for the regime, compared to a similar uprising in the mid-90s that most people had no idea was even happening. The answer to this dilemma has consisted of two letters: PR. Campaigners, Bahrain Watch, found that Bahrain has spent a minimum of £21,410,000 since February 2011 on Western based PR firms. An extraordinary sum of money, which has caused real anger amongst Bahrainis, many of whom live in neglected villages in serious poverty.
These PR firms have been responsible for positive media coverage, friendly visits, maintaining relations with sympathetic politicians and a whole raft of other techniques to paint Bahrain as a reforming constitutional monarchy that is open for business with the west. To underline the importance of these companies, it has been noted that in 2012 when the story of hunger-striking detainee Abdulhadi Alkhawaja was at its peak in Western media coverage, it was a bank holiday weekend in the UK. The presumption being that there was no one in the offices to combat the information that was coming out of Bahrain about the deterioration in health of Alkhawaja.
There is a level of debate both in the regime and amongst the opposition about how effective this PR really is. A recent article by a staunchly pro-government Bahraini journalist argued that Bahrain is not getting its money worth, with PR companies failing to combat the stream of negative media coverage. Indeed the recent Formula 1 Grand Prix serves as a perfect example, being nothing more than an oversized PR exercise involving fast cars, celebrities and glamour. The authorities were adamant it should go ahead, but in reality they scored a serious own goal with the attention of the global media turning onto Bahrain and, inevitably, its protesters.
PR can also be undone in a matter of seconds, through an ill thought out decision or some blatant abuse, of which the Bahrain regime is plenty guilty. Recently, Bahrain has denied entry to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, in a move that even the highest paid PR specialist would struggle to defend. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that there is an effect from the millions spent on PR and, in some cases, the techniques can be particularly intelligent and subtle. 20/20 is an example of this.
The book consists of two massive volumes containing glossy and sometimes breathtaking photographs of the events of February and March 2011 that shook Bahrain to its core. Dispersed between the photos is an accompanying text that works to explain the images, to create the narrative of the books.
Whilst the photos are easily recognizable by activists, the narrative is not. As one Bahraini told me as he flicked through the books, ‘Great photos, rubbish words’. The photos are indeed beautiful, with some fantastic images that capture the revolutionary fervour that was sweeping through Bahrain. When I heard about this book I expected to see small weapon-wielding opposition protests carrying Hezbollah and Iranian flags, with large pro-government gatherings holding pictures of the King and his Uncle the 43-year term (and counting) Prime Minister.
Yet, the books are not that crude in the profiling of the opposition. They correctly show the huge opposition protests and some pictures even show the small pro-government crowds, carrying sticks and knives and other weaponry. Indeed it is hard not to be taken in by the pictures. The excitement of the uprising springs out from every page and gives a genuine sense of what it really was like to be there in those tumultuous times. My Bahraini friend’s eyes lit up on each page as he reminisced about the ‘Pearl Days’, named after the Pearl Roundabout, Bahrain’s answer to Tahrir Square. But the compliments stop there. Both the choice of pictures, and predominantly the accompanying text are a form of PR that is not too dissimilar to two major tactics the regime has adopted to quell the protests: the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry and the National Dialogue.
The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry was set up by the King in August 2011 and presented its findings in November of that year. As far as the regime was concerned this was an attempt to bring in an impartial body to judge the events of February/March 2011 and ultimately to draw a line under them. They were hoping that it would find both sides at fault and would deflect international criticism from the regime. In many ways it succeeded in doing that with international governments lauding its commissioning and calling on Bahrain to implement its recommendations, which included bringing torturers to justice, releasing political prisoners and ending torture.
These steps have not been taken, however, and Bahrain remains as repressive as ever, with many claiming the level of abuses has intensified. In the same vain the National Dialogue, which began on 10th February 2013 and is ongoing, was a similar attempt by the regime to give the impression of reform, without really doing anything concrete. The dialogue has brought together opposition groups and pro-government groups, in order to sort out their differences and take Bahrain forwards.
The crucial element missing is the regime. The King has claimed that he stands ‘at the same distance’ to all sides and is an impartial implementer of whatever is decided in the talks. Yet the reality in Bahrain is of a people fighting against a regime. The differences are inherently political, between those wanting democracy and those benefiting from dictatorship, and are not communal or sectarian, as painted by the regime.
Both the BICI and the National Dialogue have tried to promulgate this notion, in the same way 20/20 does. The pictures show protests from both sides, with pictures of the Royal Family members having crisis meetings to ‘fix’ the problems, absolving them of the responsibility for the reasons why protesters came out onto the streets in such large numbers to begin with. The problem is portrayed as ultimately sectarian and between the people, with the rulers sitting above the conflict, only concerned with the good of the nation as a whole. The introduction contains the famous words from the beginning of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ The literary giant is used to describe the good and the bad of Bahrain’s protests. The idea is: yes the protests happened, and that proves Bahrain respects free expression, but it was also dangerous and thank God it is over.
This links into the thematic drive to prove that this was a moment in history, and the uprising is over. The period is presented as a historical anomaly, that is now over and life has returned to normality. With daily protests and thousands continuing to march, this assertion is simply not true, no matter what picture the regime tries to paint. It should also be noted that at no point does the book address the heinous abuses that took place during the three months of martial law including the mass arrests, the torture, the killings and the general militarization of the country.
There are clues to suggest that this characterization of the book is not the paranoid view of someone with opposition sympathies, but is a part of the grander PR tactic that comprises so much of the regimes’ response to the protests. At $400 on Amazon, you can safely assume this is not meant for the ordinary citizen, but to serve as a reference to journalists, politicians and academics, who will have a role in shaping policy towards Bahrain as well as writing the history books. One Bahraini commentator said, ‘I can see this being the kind of present that will knock around on the coffee tables of diplomats and people in the higher echelons of society’, suggesting it will serve as a gift from the regime to its key allies.
Just before its release in December 2012, Bahrain’s state news agency reported on a meeting between the publisher and the Minister of State for Information Affairs, Samira Rajab. Rajab represents the most vicious wing of the regime, in terms of engagement in anti-opposition propaganda, which regularly describes the opposition as terrorists, Iranian agents and violent thugs. The CEO of the publishing company, Miracle Publishing, offered the Minister a copy of the book, who ‘praised all efforts aiming to document the history of Bahrain’. To even gain a meeting with Samira Rajab lays clear an agenda that will benefit the government. Incidentally, no such meeting was arranged with the opposition.
In 1996 Miracle Publishing created a similar book about Bahrain: Bahrain: Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Nation. The date here is key; 1996 was slap bang in the middle of the 1990s’ ‘dignity uprising’. Similarly, 20/20 is being published during the latest uprising. The description of the previous book offers a similar story to that of 20/20, promising ‘independence’ and to be ‘unbiased’. The introduction to 20/20 is at pains to convince the reader the photographs are also independent, covering all sides and without an agenda. The pattern of publishing at opportune moments for the government does not stop with books. In 2012 Miracle was involved in design work supporting Bahrain’s capital Manama winning Cultural Capital of the Arab World, in an attempt to gloss over the protests and normalize the country in the global narrative.
These are key facts that are omitted from the introduction and strike at the claims that this is a non-biased and factual piece of work. The reality is that whilst the photographs are impressive, the book fits neatly into Bahrain’s PR drive to shed itself of the democracy protests and to place them well and truly in the past tense. The saying goes that the victors write history. This may be true, but in Bahrain’s case there is no winner yet. The battle for democracy is a continuous struggle, encapsulated by the popular Arabic phrase ‘Sumood’, meaning not to give in. The people of Bahrain are refusing to give in and no amount of PR will hide or defeat this fact.
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