Greeting internets, you may have noticed my absence due to an intense bout of Primary Income Condition (PIC), which many of you may be more familiar with by its non-medical term: a day job. But now I’m happy to introduce my first feature: Buried Headlines, where I’ll be taking a look at important stories that have been completely ignored, or received some coverage but have since been pushed off the news agenda. First up, the protests in Bahrain . . .
Protestors have been met with brutal violence from security forces since the first day they held rallies on February 14th. In addition to beatings, rubber bullets and teargas, police have used live ammunition numerous times against unarmed protestors. Martial law has been imposed, and troops from neighbouring countries have been called in to assist Bahraini security forces. I’ve compiled some video clips below that I believe best demonstrate what protestors were up against, and how peacefully they handled themselves amidst all the violence. Just a heads up, the footage can be hard to watch at times . . .
In the above video you should note the security forces were not under any threat as the protestors were still quite far away from their line. They didn’t fire any warning shots, and used fully automatic weapons. Amazingly, protestors tended to their wounded and resumed marching and chanting only to be shot at again.
A recap of one day of protest that saw protestors shut down a main road into the financial district of the city of Manama.
Security forces went after doctors who were treating wounded protestors at clinics set up at the rallies. They surrounded hospitals and plainclothes police went inside to intimidate doctors and activists receiving treatment. Some medical workers were even pulled out of the hospital, beaten, and arrested. One was even interrupted while in the middle of surgery.
So why all of this violent repression from the state? Why are protestors so determined? And why on earth did Saudi Arabia send it’s troops into Bahrain? Read on . . .
The Kingdom of Bahrain, a small island nation in the Persian Gulf has been the site of regular protests since February 14th. Inspired by the Egyptian Revolution that ousted Hosini Mubarak, Bahrainis have been demanding political reform in non-violent rallies. In the beginning they wanted the current King, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, to push through democratic reforms, but due to recent events the tone has changed to the point where some are even calling for the end of the royal family’s rule altogether.
There are many reasons for this anger, reasons that should be familiar to anyone following the news in other Arab countries in the last two months . . .
Bahrainis are young, urban, educated, and tech-savvy. Far too many are also unemployed (especially those under 30 years old) and starved for housing (many generations of family often live in the same small apartment). They have been expressing these concerns for years, but until recently these expressions didn’t take the form of street protests. The monarchy has so far been unable or unwilling to listen and act on their concerns.
So far this story sounds a lot like the ones that played out in Tunisia and Egypt, but there’s an added layer here . . .
Some observers believe as many as 70% of Bahrainis are Shia Muslims, while Sunni Bahrainis clock in at just over 10%. No one knows for sure, because the government refuses to record those statistics. That’s because Bahrain is ruled by a Sunni minority that includes most government officials, high-ranking employees of many state-run companies, and the entire royal family. The same goes for the military and police force (the two biggest employers in the country) who have a strictly no-Shia policy. In fact, up to half of police officers aren’t even Bahraini, but foreign citizens recruited in countries like Syria and Pakistan – as a result many critics contend they are more loyal to the ruling family than to Bahraini citizens.
Shia Bahrainis say they have been experiencing discrimination since the Al Khalifa came to power over two hundred years ago. These protests for many Bahrainis are as much about religious equality and human rights as they are about unemployment and corruption. However, there has not been any real anti-Sunni rhetoric present at any of the protests. In fact, Sunnis have formed a minority of the people on the streets, and one of the more popular slogans calls for Shia-Sunni unity.
An excellent look into the economic and political divide between Shia and Sunni Bahrainis: from the gleaming new Formula One track to the decrepit housing of Shia villages from CNN International.
Who Buried The Story
Virtually all Western TV news outlets have spent little to no resources to cover the events in Bahrain. Reuters and the Associated Press have kept a few people in the country, and some major networks spared some personel for a few days. Print media a did better job, some newspapers sent correspondents, including Nicolas Kristof who has been doing some fantastic work. In a recent column he offers some insight into the Shia-Sunni divide in the country:
My New York Times colleague Michael Slackman was caught by Bahrain security forces a few weeks ago. He said that they pointed shotguns at him and that he was afraid they were about to shoot when he pulled out his passport and shouted that he was an American journalist. Then, he says, the mood changed abruptly and the leader of the group came over and took Mr. Slackman’s hand, saying warmly: ”Don’t worry! We love Americans!””We’re not after you. We’re after Shia,” the policeman added. Mr. Slackman recalls: ”It sounded like they were hunting rats.”
. . . Yet you can parachute blindfolded into almost any neighborhood in Bahrain and tell immediately whether it is Sunni or Shiite. The former enjoy better roads and public services. And it’s almost impossible for Shiites to be hired by the army or police. Doesn’t that sound like an echo of apartheid?
. . . I wrote a few weeks ago about a distinguished plastic surgeon, Sadiq al-Ekri, who had been bludgeoned by security forces. At the time, I couldn’t interview Dr. Ekri because he was unconscious. But I later returned and was able to talk to him, and his story offers a glimpse into Bahrain’s tragedy.Dr. Ekri is a moderate Shiite who said his best friend is a Sunni. Indeed, Dr. Ekri recently took several weeks off work to escort this friend to Houston for medical treatment. When Bahrain’s security forces attacked protesters, Dr. Ekri tried to help the injured. He said he was trying to rescue a baby abandoned in the melee when police handcuffed him. Even after they knew his identity, he said they clubbed him so hard that they broke his nose. Then, he said, they pulled down his pants and threatened to rape him — all while cursing Shiites.
Kristoff’s work is vital, but he really is the only real heavyweight journalist who’s reported from Bahrain for more than a week. The only network with a sustained presence in the country is Al Jazeera, continuing their groundbreaking coverage of the events of the past few months in the Arab world and beyond. Admittedly, it helps that their headquarters is a short ferry ride away in neighbouring Qatar.
Why They Buried It
There are several reasons why the protests in Bahrain didn’t get a lot of sustained coverage in many media outlets. Some reasons are practical: with so many stories of uprisings across the region, many networks’ resources are stretched thin. When editors sit down to choose which stories to cover, they are more likely to spend their resources on a country that their viewers or readers are somewhat familiar with, like Egypt or Libya, instead of tiny Bahrain.
However, unfamiliarity of a place is no excuse to not cover a story, especially one that involves a popular, peaceful uprising against a regime that has shown an increasing penchant for violent repression, and a security force with members that hate a large chunk of the population for their religious affiliation.
There are also geopolitical reasons why this story is not being covered. Bahrain is home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, whose area of responsibility includes important oil shipping lanes such as the Persian Gulf, part of the Arabian Sea, and the Red Sea. As such, the US has been reluctant to criticize the Bahraini government as harshly as it did the Mubarak regime in Egypt, even though both have employed brutal violence against protestors.
There’s Saudi Arabia, which along with the United Arab Emirates sent troops into Bahrain with the approval of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The last time the Saudis sent troops outside their borders was during the Gulf War in 1991, but they felt this deployment was necessary for three reasons.
There is a Shia minority in Saudi Arabia, that has faced discrimination and also happens to reside where most of the Saudis’ oil is located. They did not want them to get inspired by events in Bahrain and start their own uprising, thus threatening oil production and by extension, the economy of the whole country. The Saudi ruling elite also wants to avoid their larger population from starting to push to hard for more democratization, as it would threaten their dominance of Saudi society.
Finally, the Gulf Cooperation Council members view Bahrain as a potential proxy that (Shia-majority) Iran will use to gain influence in the region. While it’s true the Iranian regime has attempted to use the situation in Bahrain to its advantage, and seek to make connections to Shia political groups, so far the efforts have been one-sided. The Bahraini royal family have claimed that there are “conspiracies” between Shia political groups in Bahrain and Iran, but these appear to be inventions that mirror claims made by Hosni Mubarak that “Al Qaeda” was behind the Egyptian Revolution. In both cases, these seem to be desperate attempts to discount the valid concerns of protestors, and also justify the use of brutal force against them.
It appears that some sort of compromise has been reached between the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council and the US. In exchange for the GCC’s full backing of military action against Libya, the US has appeared to have silenced any hard criticism of the situation in Bahrain. Thus, the Saudis are supporting a NATO-led air assault against an Arab country, in exchange for Western nations looking the other way while it engages in the brutal suppression of an oppressed people.
A major development today is that that Kuwait will mediate an effort to end the political crisis and violence in talks between the main opposition groups and the Bahraini government. One can only hope that many of the reasonable and democratic demands of the protestors will be met, and that this marks a move towards a more equal, just, and prosperous future for all Bahrainis.
We will have to wait and see, and hopefully, the news media will be there to observe any new developments.