The minister in charge of implementing media reforms in Bahrain made waves earlier this month when she promised that the country would soon introduce laws to regulate the misuse of social media in the country.
Samira Rajab, the Minister of State for Information Affairs, said that new laws should take aim at false information spread by social networks such as Twitter.
“The unrest in Bahrain last year was fuelled by the irresponsible use of such media and everything was blown out of proportion to suit some people’s agenda,” she told Bahrain’s Gulf Daily News.
Her statement comes amid reports of arrests and state-security questioning in Bahrain over comments made on Twitter.
Rajab, a former journalist, was appointed last month to lead the new Ministry of Information Affairs. The government department was created to help implement the media reforms suggested by the Bahrain Independent Commission (BIC).
Bahrain invited the commission, a panel of international experts, to study the violence that rocked the country last year and make recommendations for easing tensions in the nation. The BIC’s report paid close attention to the role of media in the escalations of violence.
However, instead of focusing on false reports in social media, the report noted the role government-allied outlets played in contributing to tensions. The commission found that much of the coverage in February and March from television, radio and print media “contained derogatory language and inflammatory coverage of events.”
The Bahrain government controls all of the radio and television stations in Bahrain. Moreover, six of the seven newspapers in the country take pro-government positions. The BIC also reported that journalists working for news outlets said they were coerced into covering events from a pro-government perspective instead of objective reporting.
The commission’s recommendations included suggestions that the state television and radio become more neutral and provide access to citizens with a variety of opinions. The report also recommends the relaxation of censorship in all the country’s media. Not giving opposition groups enough space to speak openly further polarises the atmosphere.
The commission made no suggestions regarding increasing restrictions on social media.
Following the report, the government of Bahrain put together a panel of media experts to draft a formal Media Reform Plan. That plan recommends the creation of a semi-autonomous High Media Board to oversee issues of media regulation (rather than the government ministers or prosecutors), an increase in training for journalists to stress strong ethical standards and the virtue of tolerance and a complete revision of the country’s media laws.
The Media Reform Plan specifically suggests repealing the criminal felonies arising from the publication of newspapers. Such a move should create a media environment in which journalists feel more comfortable to publish news independently without worrying about external threats. Journalists who are worried that their reporting may lead to arrest find it hard to write unbiased reports.
The reform plan also suggests creating a new media law that ensures “the constitutional principle guaranteeing the freedom of expression.”
Given these recommendations, it seems odd that Rajab has focused on new laws to reign in Twitter users who are allegedly spreading false information. The reform plan made no mention of the need to try to eliminate false information from social media.
Indeed, efforts in other countries to mandate the truthfulness of reports have never been successful. Truth can be subjective and when the government tries to mandate what is true, the inevitable by-product is censorship.
Many developed nations do weigh truth of reports in cases of defamation. A defendant may use the truth of the report as a defence against a libel or slander case. However, the cases are usually civil in nature, not criminal, so the result is a financial payment, not a trip to jail.
Rajab appears to be missing the mark by taking aim at social media outlets as a source of false news. The state-controlled and pro-government media disseminated its own false reports during the unrest that led to escalating tensions.
Perhaps Rajab should spend more time attempting to reform mass media outlets and relaxing censorship, rather than enacting legislation to criminalise reports on social media. Given the dominance of the government position in television, radio and newspapers, a move against social media outlets appears designed to simply shut down a vehicle of free expression.
Yes, false information is bad for any society. But, if everyone has equal access to express their opinion, truth can always conquer falsehood in a free marketplace of ideas.
The overwhelming tenor of both the Bahrain Independent Commission report and the Media Reform Plan is that Bahrain needs less censorship, not more. Attempting to add regulations to social media networks is a step in the wrong direction for Bahrain.
Dr. Matt J. Duffy is an assistant professor of communication at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/mattjduffy