Shooting The Messengers: The Plight Of Activist Bloggers In The Arab World


Just a few years ago, the West hailed the bravery of Arab bloggers standing against authoritarian regimes. But the silence now is deafening, writes Oliver Friendship.

While many commentators have regrettably overemphasised the impact that bloggers and activists had in the 2011 Arab uprisings, it cannot be denied that such individuals did play a significant role in the pro-democracy movements.

While activist bloggers did not cause the so-called Arab Spring, nor did they cause the political tensions that were apparent before the uprisings broke out, the role that these individuals played was nevertheless crucial in the ousting of many of the Arab dictators.

The bloggers may not have been the spark, but they certainly acted as accelerant, helping to send the rule of many Arab despots up in flames. They were the messengers, spreading activist opinion across the Arab world, and sharing the atrocities of the dictators with the masses.

Sadly, much of what these activists strove for never came to fruition. With the possible exception of Tunisia, the vast majority of the Arab uprisings failed to deliver what they promised, and dictators, monarchs and military men still find themselves in positions of power.

But far from being made redundant, the activist bloggers of the uprising still have an important role to play if the Arab world is ever going to become more liberal and democratic. Of course, speaking out against entrenched despotic authority is a dangerous act, and many bloggers have found themselves on the wrong side of the law.

One recent example is the case of Bahraini national Nabeel Rajab. On February 21st of this year, Reuters reported that Rajab had been sentenced to five years imprisonment for criticising Saudi Arabia’s airstrikes in Yemen, and accusing the Bahraini prison authorities of torture.

Jailed Bahranian activist Nabeel Rajab.

Rajab’s criticisms, which were made on Twitter, meant that the activist was found guilty of ‘insulting a neighbouring country’, and ‘insulting a national institution’.

Rajab, a figure who rose to prominence during Bahrain’s failed 2011 uprising, had already been sentenced to two years imprisonment in July 2017. On this occasion, the blogger allegedly made “false and malicious” statements about Bahraini authorities, when he alleged political prisoners faced torture in Bahraini jails.

Due to poor physical health, Rajab was also tried in absentia, and lost an appeal against this conviction in the January of this year.

What’s all the more unsettling about Rajab’s conviction, is that the claims he made stand up against factual scrutiny, and have international backing. The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, of which Bahrain is a member, deserves the criticism that Rajab levelled at it.

On the day the Saudis began their proxy war against Iranian backed Houthi rebels, Rajab criticised wars that “bring hatred, destruction and horrors”. Nearly three years on, no-one can reasonably question that this has been the exact result of the Saudi-led operation.

Late last year, Saudi airstrikes killed 68 civilians in a single day, bringing the 10-day civilian casualty total from that time to 109. Sectarianism and famine are also prevalent throughout the now failed state of Yemen.

As for Rajab’s criticisms of the Bahraini prison authorities, they are equally well founded.

Hussain Jawad, another Bahraini activist, found himself in prison after a dramatic arrest in February 2015. Here, Jawad alleges regular beatings, 12-hour interrogations, electric shocks and a forced confession. A Human Rights Watch report from November 2015 similarly found that many detainees “had been physically assaulted. Several described electric shocks; suspension in painful positions, including by their wrists while handcuffed; forced standing; extreme cold; and abuse of a sexual nature.”

A Saudi Arabian airstrike in Saana, Yemen. (IMAGE: Ibrahem Qasim, Flickr)

Rajab’s Twitter criticisms are far from beyond the pale, and instead contain strong intellectual ballast.

Yet Rajab now finds himself destined to spend time in the Bahraini prison system; the very institution he so adamantly accuses of torturing political prisoners. For being the messenger of truth to the people of Bahrain, Rajab has been punished, and ultimately silenced.

In a sense, it is immaterial whether Rajab’s assertions are even right or wrong. The very crimes he is charged with, ‘insulting a neighbouring country’ and ‘insulting a national institution’, are in themselves ludicrous.

To live in a society that imprisons individuals for making a reasoned criticism of a national institution is unfathomable. The West has become so used to living in a society in which institutional accountability and transparency are a core tenet, and it takes examples such as Rajab’s to illuminate how fortunate Westerners are, and how important these values are.

Nabeel Rajab is also far from the only activist blogger silenced since the Arab uprisings. Raif Badawi was arrested in Saudi Arabia in 2012 for ‘insulting Islam through electronic channels’. Convicted in 2013, Badawi had his sentenced upgraded in 2014 to seven years imprisonment, a fine, and 1000 lashes.

Badawi’s crime was to write about the role of religion in the activities of the state: “No religion at all has any connection to mankind’s civic progress… the codes governing the administration of the state can hardly be derived from religion.”

Whether one agrees with Badawi or not, the fact is that an individual is suffering in a Saudi Arabian jail for essentially advocating the separation of Church and State. In present-day Saudi Arabia, an individual can find themselves imprisoned for postulating the same concept that John Locke did in A Letter Concerning Toleration, way back in 1689.

The plight of activists like Rajab and Badawi are critical in the contemporary battle of ideas in the Arab world. In the fight between freedom and authoritarianism, between democracy and theocracy, the writings of activist bloggers are crucial. They can be spread to wider society through social media, and largely escape the censorship of the state.

The Arab uprisings of 2011 have come and gone, but the broader struggle for liberties and freedoms in the Arab world has far from disappeared. While they are not the only players in the field, the activist bloggers of the Arab world are a rare and precious breed.

Principled and ultimately fearless, these individuals deserve to be supported. If the Western defenders of free speech and individual freedoms care about the universality of these admirable liberal values, then the plight of the Arab bloggers should be one of their foremost priorities.

Oliver Friendship is a British-Australian writer and commentator based on the Sunshine Coast, Queensland.