Bahrain: Activists, Journalists, & Witnesses

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

CAROLINE BATTEN, WNR: When Radhika Sainath filled out her visa to visit Bahrain, she was faced with an unusual problem.

RADHIKA SAINATH: There’s no activism box to tack off on the tourist visa.

BATTEN: So Sainath, an American attorney, identified herself simply as a tourist, a decision which Bahraini authorities would later use as the grounds for her deportation back to the United States. Even if she had the option, she says identifying herself as an activist–or even a journalist–would have likely prevented her from entering Bahrain in the first place.

SAINATH: People who were official journalists were not allowed in, and if we just obey the wishes of these repressive regimes and declare ourselves journalists and not go in because we’re journalists, then we’re not going to get the story out.

BATTEN: So on February 11, 2012, Sainath and her fellow American activist Huwaida Arraf joined a march to Pearl Roundabout in Manama, along with other members of Witness Bahrain, an activist group supporting Bahrain’s anti-government protesters. Both Arraf and Sainath were arrested at that march, and deported back to the United States the next day.

But their detainment is part of a larger trend. After a popular uprising calling for political and economic reform began in Manama in February 2011, Bahraini security forces seemed to have silenced most major protests. Yet a full year after the uprising started, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a non-profit organization which promotes press freedom, Bahraini authorities continue to deny journalists visas, deport them arbitrarily, and otherwise fail to distinguish between journalists reporting on protests and the protesters themselves.

For Sainath, these charges raise an important question.

SAINATH: A lot of what activism is, is reporting. Does that make activists journalists? I don’t know.

BATTEN: On her way to the Pearl Roundabout in Manama on February 11, Sainath says she was stopped by security forces firing tear gas directly into the crowd.

SAINATH: These are not tear gas canisters being shot over your head, these are tear gas canisters firing directly at you. These canisters have come from the United States. They removed the ‘Made in the U.S.A.’ signs, but people still think they come from the U.S.A.

BATTEN: When the police stopped her, Sainath says she showed them her passport. As it turns out, they were expecting her.

SAINATH: They looked at the name on my passport and then they looked down at their blackberries and they said “هذا هو لها,” which means ‘that’s her’ in Arabic.

BATTEN: Nada Alwadi, a Bahraini journalist, was detained by the police in Manama in February 2011 after she reported on earlier protests. She left Bahrain soon after for the United States.

ALWADI: They deal with journalists as if they were protesters, all the time when they were investigating me they were saying, ‘Did you go to the Pearl Roundabout? What did you chant, what did you do?’ And I was saying, ‘I went there, yes, but as a journalist. I was there doing my job. You can’t treat me as a protester; this is something completely different.’

BATTEN: Before she was released, Alwadi says she was forced to pledge she would stop all political activity and cease writing about the protests. That’s when she decided to leave the country.

For Sainath, the next morning brought not a pledge to sign, but a fever and vomiting from the tear gas. While Alwadi was arrested for being an activist, even though she is a journalist, Sainath and Arraf were accused of the reverse: being journalists when in fact they were activists. According to a press release from Bahrain’s Information Affairs Authority, the women attained their tourist visas under “false premises” and then acted as journalists during the demonstrations.

After a trial, police took Sainath and Arraf to the airport to send them back to the United States. On the first seven-hour flight from Manama to London, Sainath says she was handcuffed, with her hands yanked backwards and above her head.

SAINATH: I’ll tell you, whatever they wanted me to say, I would’ve said it at that moment. It was really painful.

BATTEN: Sainath says her experience of abuse at the hands of Bahraini authorities isn’t an isolated event.

SAINATH: I would just be in a Costa Coffee, which is sort of their equivalent of Starbucks, where everyone would hang out, talking to people, meeting people, and then a couple of hours later or maybe the next day they’d be like, ‘Oh yeah, I was tortured — I was electrocuted.’

BATTEN: Alwadi says many of her journalist colleagues have also been abused during their detention. The founder of the newspaper Alwadi wrote for, Karim Fakhrawi, died in state custody last spring, as reported in the New York Times.

ALWADI: This was not an exception, this was the norm, this is how they dealt with anyone who goes there, regardless of their affiliation, regardless of who these people are.

BATTEN: Even Nicholas Kristof, a journalist and opinion columnist who focuses on humanitarian crises for the New York Times, was briefly detained during his visit to Bahrain in December 2011. The following clip is an excerpt from a video report produced by international affairs correspondent Adam B. Ellick for the Times.

ELLICK: [scuffling sounds] Journalist, journalist. American.

KRISTOF: That’s the voice of Adam Ellick, a New York Times video journalist traveling with me.

ELLICK: I said to him, I’m an American journalist, and he actually broke this part of my camera.

BATTEN: According to this video, the riot police dragged Ellick into a police car, and later detained Kristof as well.

KRISTOF: We were freed after thirty minutes. The government later announced that we had sought police protection. That’s a blatant lie, [and a reminder to be wary of government pronouncements.]

BATTEN: If journalists like Kristof are unable to report without being detained by the police, does the act of reporting become an act of protest? Alwadi certainly doesn’t see herself as a protester.

ALWADI: When people ask me or present me as an activist, I refuse. I still see myself as a journalist; I’m not an activist and I don’t want to be. I believe in truth and I took a stand and I took a position, but I am not an activist from the ground.

BATTEN: At the same time, Alwadi says, she felt as if she was favoring protesters just by reporting what she saw.

ALWADI: It’s so hard for you not to take sides when you see people dying, when you see lies.

BATTEN: Alwadi also notes that she has seen a growing number of “citizen journalists,” who also use reporting as a tool to support their activism.

ALWADI: Individuals, ordinary people out there reporting what they see, and they have the full right to do that, they are the new journalists right now.

BATTEN: Increasingly, the government of Bahrain, and perhaps audiences as well, are treating the distinction between journalism and activism as irrelevant. But whether she is identified as a protester or a reporter, Alwadi says she will stay true to her first duty as a journalist —

ALWADI: Our job is [to be] ambassadors for truth.

BATTEN: For War News Radio, with producer Amy DiPierro, I’m Caroline Batten.

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