Most of us tend to think of fake news as an irritant: deliberately misleading information with attention-grabbing headlines, which, hopefully, we recognise as bogus once we start reading. President Trump frequently labels negative or critical media as false and rails against fake news in his tweets. Far more alarming, however, is the fact that repressive states are increasingly using spurious charges of ‘spreading fake news’ to silence dissent.
One prominent victim is Nabeel Rajab (LR, May 2015), president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, who was sentenced on 10 July, after spending thirteen months in pretrial detention, to two years in prison for spreading ‘fake news’ (it is hoped that the time he spent in prison awaiting trial will be deducted from his sentence). He also faces up to eighteen years in prison on other charges. These include insulting a statutory body, spreading rumours in wartime and insulting a neighbouring country. Rajab was arrested on 13 June 2016 for writings and interviews critical of the Bahraini authorities, for demanding the release of prisoners of conscience, political reform and respect for human rights, for tweeting about alleged torture in a Bahraini prison and for criticising the Saudi-led coalition’s killing of civilians in the civil war in Yemen. In September 2016, an additional charge of spreading false news was laid against him after the New York Times published a letter in his name.
On 28 December 2016 a Bahraini court ordered Rajab’s release, but the authorities immediately rearrested him on charges relating to television interviews he had given in 2015 and 2016. He was subsequently accused of publishing and disseminating rumours and false news. Rajab was held in solitary confinement for over nine months until he was transferred to the Ministry of Interior hospital in al-Qalaa after suffering complications following surgery in early April. Despite the hospital issuing medical reports confirming that Rajab could not attend court hearings, the trial continued. On 14 June the judge rejected his lawyers’ request to postpone proceedings until Rajab could attend, prompting them and diplomats from the USA, UK and Australia to walk out of court.
Rajab has been repeatedly harassed by the authorities since participating in the anti-government protests of 2011. He was one of several leading activists arrested for taking part in ‘illegal gatherings’. In May 2012 he was charged with ‘insulting a national institution’ after posting various tweets about the Ministry of Interior. The following month he was sentenced to three months in jail for critical tweets about the prime minister. Rajab’s conviction was eventually overturned on appeal, but only after he had begun his two-year sentence for taking part in the protests. He was finally released in May 2014.
Just five months later, on 1 October, Rajab was once again summoned for questioning by Bahrain’s General Directorate of Criminal Investigations (CID). He was interrogated for hours about another tweet, in which he had criticised members of the security forces who had reportedly travelled abroad to fight alongside ISIS supporters.
I first wrote about Rajab in these pages after his arrest on 2 April 2015 for an opinion piece entitled ‘Into Bahrain’s Jaws of Hell’, published on the Huffington Post. In it he exposed ill-treatment and collective punishment in Bahrain’s Jaw Prison. He was detained for three months in solitary confinement and was only released following a royal pardon granted on the grounds of ill health. Rajab’s freedom was short-lived: he was arrested again on 13 June 2016.
Rajab has been held largely in solitary confinement and his health has deteriorated as a result. He is now being detained in hospital and has been prevented from contacting his lawyers. Permission for his family to visit and contact him is not always granted, in spite of his poor health. According to a medical examination report issued by the CID on 4 June 2017, Rajab suffers from hypertension, an unspecified allergy, gastritis and an anxiety disorder. PEN and other human rights organisations remain deeply concerned about Rajab’s health and continue to call for his immediate release.
Readers might like to send appeals expressing concern that Nabeel Rajab is being held in violation of his right to freedom of expression, as guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; calling on the government of Bahrain to immediately and unconditionally release Rajab from custody and drop all charges against him; urging the authorities to cease all harassment of and restrictions against human rights defenders in Bahrain and to release all those currently detained solely for the peaceful exercise of their right to free expression.
Appeals to be addressed to:
His Majesty Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa
King of Bahrain
Fax: 00 973 176 64 587
Sheikh Khalid bin Ali al-Khalifa
Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs
Fax: 00 973 175 31 284
Her Excellency Ambassador Alice Thomas Samaan
Embassy of the Kingdom of Bahrain
30 Belgrave Square
London SW1X 8QB
Fax: 020 7201 9183
Update: On 13 July Liu Xiaobo (LR, July 2009, May 2013), the Nobel Peace Prize winner, writer, literary critic and human rights activist, died, aged sixty-one. Two weeks earlier, Xiaobo had been released on medical parole after being diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. He had spent eight years in Jinzhou prison in northeast China, after being convicted of ‘inciting subversion of state power’. His wife, the poet and photographer Liu Xia, remains under house arrest.