Freedom on the Net 2022 - Bahrain

/ 100
Obstacles to Access 16 / 25
Limits on Content 6 / 35
Violations of User Rights 7 / 40
30 / 100 Not Free
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free). See the research methodology and report acknowledgements.


Internet freedom in Bahrain remains restricted. During the coverage period, authorities continued to block websites and forced the removal of online content, particularly social media posts criticizing the government. While social media remains a key space for activism and dissent, self-censorship is high due to the fear of online surveillance and intimidation from authorities. Social media users were interrogated by security forces for their posts, and citizens were arrested and jailed for content posted online. The Ministry of the Interior (MOI) continued to dissuade internet users from discussing sensitive topics online, such as the decision to normalize relations with Israel. Journalists and activists who work online continued to face extralegal intimidation, cyberattacks, and surveillance by state authorities.

The Sunni-led monarchy dominates state institutions, and elections for the lower house of parliament are no longer competitive or inclusive. Since violently crushing a popular prodemocracy protest movement in 2011, the monarchy has systematically eliminated a broad range of political rights and civil liberties, dismantled the political opposition, and cracked down harshly on persistent dissent in the Shiite population.

Key Developments, June 1, 2021 - May 31, 2022

  • During the coverage period, the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) worked to improve internet access and speeds and promoted competition within the telecommunications market (see A1, A2, and A4).
  • In December 2021, the owner of a children’s nursery was interrogated at the Cybercrimes Department about a video she shared on the National Day of Bahrain. She was asked to delete the video (see B2 and C3).
  • Online campaigns about human rights issues were disrupted by progovernment trolls during the reporting period, and in February 2022, reports revealed that Bahraini activists were targeted with Pegasus spyware (see B5, B8, and C5).
  • During the coverage period, at least 13 individuals were arrested, detained, or prosecuted for their online activities (see C3).
  • In July 2021, the website and Instagram and YouTube accounts of the Al-Wafa opposition group were hacked by unknown attackers (see C8).

A Obstacles to Access

A1 0-6 pts
Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections? 6 / 6

There are no infrastructural limitations to the internet and access is widespread in Bahrain. As of January 2022, internet penetration stood at 99 percent and there were 1.78 million mobile subscriptions.1 A 2021 report from the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), Bahrain’s industry regulator, shows that 99.7 percent of citizens have network coverage outside their homes.2

Internet speeds have increased in recent years. As of May 2022, the median mobile and broadband download speeds were 62.62 megabits per second (Mbps) and 47.63 Mbps, respectively.3

Batelco, a state-controlled internet service provider (ISP), began offering “superfast” 500 Mbps speeds to residential subscribers in 2016,4 and fiber-optic broadband internet became available from providers STC and Zain after the centralization of wholesale services under the Bahrain National Broadband Network Company (BNET) in October 2019 (see A3 and A4).5 Meanwhile, fourth-generation (4G) long term evolution (LTE) mobile subscriptions have been available since 2013. By January 2021, Bahrain achieved full national fifth-generation (5G) network coverage with average speeds of 440 Mbps from three providers (Batelco, STC, and Zain).6 In April 2022, the TRA licensed Starlink to start offering satellite and internet services in Bahrain.7

In January 2022, limited internet and mobile outages were reported in the Ma’ameer area after heavy rains damaged infrastructure.8 The outages lasted for a few days and impacted around 3,800 subscribers. There was no official announcement regarding the disruption.9

Internet access is widely available in schools, universities, and shopping malls, as well as coffee shops, which often provide complimentary Wi-Fi.

A2 0-3 pts
Is access to the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons? 2 / 3

Internet access is affordable for most of the population.

Prices for mobile broadband are among the lowest in the region,10 with Batelco offering 10 gigabytes (GB) of data per month for 7.5 Bahraini dinars ($19.8).11

With more companies providing services like fiber-optic broadband (see A1), competitive packages have become readily available.12 Fixed-line broadband subscriptions with a 20-megabyte (MB) connection cost 17.6 dinars ($46.6) per month, less than 1 percent of the average Bahraini’s monthly income, with similar prices for mobile services.13 According to a 2020 ITU report on price trends, median prices for mobile and fixed broadband services accounted for less than two percent of gross national income (GNI) per capita.14

Packages with fewer calls and data—for example, one costing 7.5 dinars ($19.8) for 9 GB per month—are affordable for Bahrain’s many low-wage migrant workers.15 Although these packages have no content limitations, the more expensive ones offer higher speeds.

Given the country’s small geographical size, there is not a noticeable gap in access between rural and urban areas. The government has made efforts to promote access among women, migrant workers, and other demographics.16

A3 0-6 pts
Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity? 4 / 6

Until 2019, Bahrain had no centralized internet backbone, though all ISPs are indirectly controlled by the government through orders from the TRA (see A5). Service providers connect to numerous international cables and gateways provided by Tata, Flag, Saudi Telecom, and Etisalat, among others, making the country less prone to unintentional internet outages.17

In October 2019, Batelco, a state-controlled ISP, launched BNET, which manages the single fiber-optic broadband network in Bahrain.18 This development means the country’s entire fiber-optic broadband network can be restricted or shut down from one switch. Bahrain has a national Internet Exchange (BIX) board appointed by the prime minister with the objective of improving connectivity in Bahrain.19 Major ISPs connect directly to the international internet infrastructure or work with other internet exchange providers.20

Bahraini authorities do not restrict or block social media websites or Voice-over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services. WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Telegram, and other platforms were accessible in Bahrain as of the end of the reporting period.21 Though Telegram was blocked in 2016, as of June 2021, users have reported renewed access to the service.22

No cases of connectivity restrictions were observed during the coverage period. The most recent restriction lasted for over a year, from June 2016 to July 2017, when authorities implemented an “internet curfew” in Diraz after security forces besieged the town following a sit-in around the house of Shiite cleric Issa Qassem.23 The TRA failed to address consumer complaints about the shutdowns, despite widespread criticism from the media and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).24

A4 0-6 pts
Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers? 4 / 6

There are some obstacles to service providers seeking to enter the market, related primarily to acquiring the approval of various government bodies, as well as installation of the required systems that facilitate government content controls and monitoring.

Batelco, Zain, and STC are the country’s three major mobile network operators, and also serve as the main ISPs.25 As of February 2022, the TRA was not accepting applications for mobile licenses, but was for ISP licenses.26 In total, around 12 ISPs were operating as of March 2022.27 The government has a controlling stake in the largest ISP, Batelco,28 while other ISPs are owned by investors from the private sector.

The requirements for establishing a new ISP are published by the TRA and the Commerce Ministry on their websites, and include the submission of a “lawful access implementation plan” that would allow security personnel to access subscribers’ data (see C6). The initial registration fee is relatively inexpensive, though operators also need to purchase the filtering system mandated by the TRA (see B1). Both the ISP infrastructure and employees must be located in Bahrain.29 Approval by the General Directorate of Criminal Investigation is also required.30

In April 2022, the TRA issued pricing regulations for Batelco’s international connectivity services. Batelco controls three of four submarine cables connecting Bahrain to the global internet. The regulations aim to level the playing field for other service providers that rely on Batelco’s services and promote competitive prices for international connectivity.31

In December 2020, the TRA fined STC 27,500 dinars ($72,500) for provisionally breaching subscriber-registration SIM card regulations and 37,500 dinars ($98,900) for not providing a Lawful Access Capability Plan for its fiber-optic services (see C4).32 Similarly, in September 2020, the TRA fined Kalaam Telecom 36,300 dinars ($95,700) for breaching the 2002 Telecommunications Law, failing to update the TRA with customer information, and failing to submit consumer identity information to the National Security Agency (NSA) by the required deadline.33

In October 2019, Batelco was split into two entities, and a new company, BNET, owns the fiber-optic broadband network infrastructure and provides wholesale services to the licensed telecommunications operators.34 BNET is still owned by Batelco, of which the government is the largest shareholder (see A3).35 The split followed a TRA national communications plan to establish a single infrastructure network.36

With launch of BNET, all ISPs are able to provide fiber-optic internet services as resellers, whereas before only a single provider offered these services. As a result, market competition has increased and prices for users have decreased. Specifically, broadband internet prices fell 47 percent between 2019 and 2020.37 In November 2021, BNET began allowing users to transfer their broadband account from one ISP to another with minimal service disruption.38 This has further encouraged competition in the telecommunications market.39

A5 0-4 pts
Do national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology fail to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner? 0 / 4

Bahraini national regulatory bodies are effectively controlled by the monarchy. They have revoked licenses of operators that failed to install monitoring and filtering systems required by government authorities and are indifferent to user complaints about internet controls. However, international organizations such as the ITU have recently credited Bahrain for improvements to the regulatory regime and competition framework.40

Mobile service providers and ISPs are regulated by the TRA under the 2002 Telecommunications Law. The TRA is responsible for licensing telecommunication providers and for developing “a competition-led market for the provision of innovative communications services.”41 The TRA works with the government to set up and implement the national telecommunication plan, which is updated every three years and then approved by the cabinet and made available to the public.42

Although the TRA is theoretically independent, in practice its members are appointed by the king and based on cabinet approval.43 As of March 2022, one board member and three members of the agency’s executive management team were members of the royal family.44

In the past, the TRA has revoked the licenses of small mobile and fixed-line providers, including 2Connect45 and Bahrain Broadband, for failure to comply with several TRA regulations (see B3).46

Despite its lack of independence, the TRA has successfully improved internet access, quality, and affordability in recent years. Specifically, the TRA has been instrumental in rolling out high-quality telecommunications services (see A1)47 and decreasing prices by promoting competition within the ISP market (see A2 and A4).48 In 2020, the ITU ranked Bahrain as a G4 environment, which indicates a mature regulatory environment that enables ICT adoption and price reduction.49

B Limits on Content

B1 0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content, particularly material that is protected by international human rights standards? 1 / 6

Authorities ramped up censorship after the 2011 prodemocracy protests, in which online media played an important role, and heavy-handed censorship has persisted since. Political content is widely blocked. While YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and international blog-hosting services are freely available, authorities have blocked a number of international news websites and those hosting political content.

Once blocked, websites rarely get unblocked, though some were in 2021. Telegram’s website, which had been blocked since 2016, became accessible in 2021. In late January 2021, the website of Al-Quds al-Araby, a London-based newspaper that was blocked since 2011, became available on at least one ISP.50 Some mobile live-streaming services that were popular in 2011, including Ustream and Bambuser, remained blocked during the coverage period. Though some of these websites have rebranded, their URLs still remain on the government’s list of blocked sites (see B3).51 Many Bahraini sites that were blocked in 2017 have forgone their web presence and, in some cases, moved exclusively to social media. These include the websites of the Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society.52 The website of independent Bahraini news outlet Awal Online has been blocked since December 2018, when it was blocked for its critical reporting on a government minister.53 In November 2020, the MOI stated that it blocked a website for publishing fraudulent information about efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.54

Qatari websites, including Qatari outlets Al-Sharq, Al-Raya, Al-Jazeera, and Qatar Airways, have been blocked since May 2017, when Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) cut diplomatic ties with Qatar.55 Some became briefly accessible in 2021 amid talks to restore ties with Qatar, but had again become inaccessible on multiple ISPs as of February 2022. Other blocked websites include the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, and the website of Alualua TV,56 which had its new URL blocked in September 2021.57 A popular news site, Bahrain Mirror, has been blocked repeatedly over the past few years. 58 Despite efforts to circumvent the blocking by changing its URL, Bahrain Mirror’s website was again blocked in November 2020.59

According to Article 72 of the new draft Press, Printing, and Publishing Law, the court can order the blocking of a news site for six months if the chief editor or the managing editor is convicted of a crime committed through the website, and the blocking can last up to a year if the crime is repeated (see C2). Under Article 78, the court can also order the website to be blocked during the investigation and trial period if it has published something that is considered a crime, or for threatening the public order. Under Article 85, the court can order the blocking of a news site for one year if the website “serves the interests of a foreign state or body” with policies that compromise Bahrain’s national interest, or if it has obtained aid from any foreign country or entity without permission from the Ministry of Information Affairs (MIA).60

In August 2016, the TRA ordered all telecommunications companies to employ a centralized, TRA-managed system for blocking websites.61 The order was related to a $1.2 million contract awarded that year to Canadian company Netsweeper to provide a “national website filtering solution.”62 That September, Citizen Lab reported that Netsweeper was identified on the services of at least nine ISPs and filtered political content on at least one.63 Websites hosted overseas are less vulnerable to being removed at the behest of the government and remain accessible to Bahrainis with access to censorship-circumvention tools.

B2 0-4 pts
Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content, particularly material that is protected by international human rights standards? 0 / 4

Content deemed critical of the government is regularly removed from websites, and authorities employ pressure on users through intimidation, interrogations, and arrests to force the removal of content. Content is removed from government social media accounts when it is deemed controversial or triggers unwanted criticism.

Content uploaded to official platforms is edited to ensure it aligns with government values. In March 2022, a member of parliament, Zainab Abdulameer, said that a recording of parliamentary speeches was modified by the parliament’s media team before it was uploaded to the parliament’s online channels. Allegedly, this was done to avoid angering the government.64

In November 2021, the Justice Ministry forced the Nationalist Democratic Assembly society to cancel an online seminar that would have been broadcasted on YouTube. While authorities provided no reasoning for canceling the event and broadcast, rights groups believe authorities were attempting to censor one of the seminar’s speakers, Ebrahim Sharif, an outspoken opposition leader who has critical views on the government’s economic plans.65

In December 2021, the owner of a children’s nursery was interrogated at the Cybercrimes Department about a video she shared on the National Day of Bahrain (see C3), which showed children performing scenes about social issues in the country.66 The video was posted on social media and went viral in Bahrain. The nursery owner was released after being interrogated by the public prosecutor and was forced to delete the video from her Instagram account.67 Following the incident, the Education Ministry monitored user comments on its Instagram post about the case, deleting comments that were supportive of the video while leaving comments that criticized it.68 As of February 2022, all comments had been removed from the post.69

Users exploit platforms’ reporting mechanisms to remove comments critical of authorities and to suspend accounts operated by activists and independent journalists (see B5).70 In May 2019, following MOI calls to avoid interacting with “malicious” accounts, the president of the Social Media Club in Bahrain called on social media users to block and report malicious accounts, stating it was a “national duty.”71

In January 2020, several Twitter users were summoned to the Department of Cybercrimes for tweets regarding the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, some of which had sympathized with Soleimani or been critical of the assassination. The Twitter users were released only after deleting their tweets.72 The MOI claimed that the deleted tweets could “harm the general order,” and issued a statement warning of legal action against those who use social media to violate “public order” (see B5).73

According to their transparency reports, Google, Facebook, and Twitter received no requests from Bahraini authorities to remove content in 2021.74 In the first half of 2021, Snapchat applied “content enforcement” on 24,715 pieces of Bahraini content for violating site guidelines.75

B3 0-4 pts
Do restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process? 0 / 4

Score Change: The score declined from 1 to 0 given the complete lack of transparency around content removal decisions, and that there is no practical way to appeal website blocking or content removal decisions.

The decision-making process and government policies behind the blocking of websites are not transparent, and there is no avenue to appeal website blocking orders.

Multiple state organizations, including the MIA and MOI, can order the blocking of a website without a court order. The MIA blocks websites that violate Articles 19 and 20 of the Press Rules and Regulations, which prohibit material judged as “instigating hatred of the political regime, encroaching on the state's official religion, breaching ethics, encroaching on religions and jeopardizing public peace.”76 The dissemination of false news that damages national security or public order is a criminal offense punishable by up to two years in prison.77

Authorities send lists of blocked websites to ISPs, which are instructed to “prohibit any means that allow access to sites blocked.”78 Licenses of ISPs may be revoked by the TRA for failing to cooperate with the MIA’s blocking orders (see A5).79 The government’s list of blocked websites is not available to the public, and site administrators do not receive notifications or explanations when their websites are banned. Appealing a blocked website is not possible for users. Although the blocked page includes a link to submit a request to unblock the site, the link was inaccessible during the coverage period.80 The list of blocked sites is almost never reviewed and sites are rarely unblocked, even after websites suspend their activities (see B1).

There are no official regulations outlining an appeals process for content restriction, and, in the absence of official publications of blocking orders, it is difficult to appeal through the court system. A 2009 MIA blocking order stated that no site could be unblocked without an order from the information minister.81

Website administrators can be held legally responsible for content posted on their platforms, including alleged libel. Article 74 of the new draft Press, Publishing, and Printing Law defines the website managing editor as the accountable person who would be punished for offending content.82 In February 2016, the MOI stated that WhatsApp group administrators may be held liable for spreading false news if they fail to report incidents that occur within their groups.83 In April 2020, the ministry stated that reposting, forwarding, and retweeting false news also subjects individuals to the same legal actions.84

B4 0-4 pts
Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship? 0 / 4

Internet users exercise a high degree of self-censorship. Most people use pseudonyms on social media for fear of being targeted by the authorities.85 Even opposition news sites based outside Bahrain rarely publish the names of their editors.86

Intimidation tactics, surveillance, and investigations of users’ online activities have increased self-censorship.87 The Bahrain Press Association (BPA) observed that internet users who have “independent or dissenting opinions” must exercise caution when posting in order to avoid online algorithms that the Cybercrime Directorate uses to “identify its targets” (see C5).88 In a Twitter survey conducted in June 2020, 73 percent of participants said they fear legal repercussions if they comment on local issues.89 Users commonly warn each other about posts that could draw negative attention from authorities.90

Activists often stop tweeting following detentions and interrogations, and those who return to Twitter after being detained frequently avoid controversial subjects such as direct criticism of the king and other topics the MOI warns against (see B5).91 In May 2019, exiled journalist Adel Marzooq said he lost 180 Twitter followers days after the MOI described his account as malicious and warned users not to follow or promote his messages.92 Other activists have reported losing followers immediately after the MOI issued general threats against following accounts that incite “sedition.”93

Self-censorship on Twitter has become acute, with users expressing increasing fear of facing prosecution for discussion of anything beyond sports, lifestyle topics, and political views in line with those of the regime.94

B5 0-4 pts
Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest? 0 / 4

Government authorities and progovernment trolls work effectively to manipulate the online information landscape in Bahrain.

Authorities issue official statements warning against the discussion of certain subjects and the “misuse” of social media.95 In October 2021, following the Israeli Foreign Minister’s visit to Bahrain, the MOI renewed its calls for citizens to avoid interacting with or reposting comments that could “provoke sedition” or threaten national unity.96 In October 2020, the MOI threatened legal action against users who “defame” ties with Israel.97 In August 2020, the MOI warned users about interacting with social media accounts run by Bahraini political groups operating abroad, specifically naming the Al-Wefaq Society and Al-Wafa Movement.98

Research from 2013 revealed connections between the Bahraini government and “extremist” social media accounts that advocated violence against both the government and citizens.99 It also emerged that the government impersonates opposition figures on social media in order to send malicious links, such as internet protocol (IP) trackers, to anonymous government critics that can be used to identify and prosecute them (see C5 and C8).100 In July 2020, activist Hasan al-Sitri said that an Instagram account was impersonating him and trying to interact with others.101

Organized progovernment trolls have become increasingly present on social media platforms since 2011, when hundreds of accounts suddenly emerged to collectively harass and intimidate online activists.102 In November 2020, a group of progovernment users announced the establishment of a “Bahrain Electronic Army,” an organized group of users aiming at “defending Bahrain.”103 The accounts promote hate speech against human rights activists and spread disinformation about their activities.104 The government took no action to disband the group, and though the @BahrainCyber account was suspended for violating Twitter rules in February 2021, it was reactivated as of March 2022. Activists believe this “army” is sponsored by Bahraini authorities.105

Online campaigns about human rights issues were disrupted by progovernment trolls during the reporting period. In late 2021, Twitter accounts with foreign names were active in posting defamatory messages against prisoner of conscience and opposition leader, Dr. Abduljalil al-Singace.106 As hashtags that raised attention of al-Singace’s hunger strike in a Bahrain prison began trending, the trolls sought to manipulate hashtags to drown out the trending hashtag (see C3).107 In December 2021, another group of Twitter trolls spread defamatory messages during a Twitter campaign that called for freedom for Shaikh Ali Salman, the leader of the Al-Wefaq political society.108 Many of these posts amplified identical messages.

In August 2019, Facebook announced the removal of 217 Facebook accounts, 144 Facebook pages, and 31 Instagram accounts originating in Saudi Arabia that were using false identities and were coordinated to post manipulated content focused on the Middle East, including Bahrain.109 Similarly, in the first quarter of 2020, Google terminated 2 advertising accounts, 1 AdSense account, and 99 YouTube channels, and banned 1 Google Play developer account for coordinating efforts to influence the online environment by posting content supporting Bahrain while opposing Iran and Qatar.110

B6 0-3 pts
Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online? 1 / 3

Regulatory restrictions limit the ability of users to publish online content, while government censorship creates indirect economic constraints that leave many outlets dependent on personal funding.

Newspapers must obtain licenses from the mass media directorate in order to disseminate content on websites or social media, according to Decree 68/2016.111 Outlets must provide a list of their social media accounts and website addresses, as well as the names of those who oversee them, as part of the license application, exposing employees to possible monitoring and coercion. Under the existing press law, those publishing without a license face six months’ imprisonment, a fine of 5,000 dinars ($13,200), or both.

In August 2019, the Information Affairs Authority (IAA) suspended the license of Manama Voice, a news site operated by Bahraini journalist Hani al-Fardan, without a clear reason (see B1).112 Al-Fardan continues to report using his Instagram platform, as social media does not currently require an IAA license.113

Under Decree 68/2016, newspapers may not post videos over two minutes in length and are forbidden from streaming live video. The law also stipulates that electronic media must reflect the same content as their printed counterparts, limiting multimedia content.

In April 2021, the cabinet approved amendments to the draft Press, Publishing, and Printing Law and referred the amended draft to the parliament.114 The law would not apply to personal social media accounts or government news sites, but would otherwise impact online journalism, news reporting, and broadcasting (see B1 and C2). Under Article 44, affected sites must register with and obtain MIA approval to operate.115 Site moderators must be citizens and must not have previous convictions, potentially excluding thousands convicted in political and conscience cases over the past decade. Website owners can lose their licenses for failing to update websites for at least two months or violating the law’s personal-eligibility criteria under Article 67. Under Article 85, websites receiving support from a foreign state or entity or serving foreign interests in a way deemed inconsistent with government aims can lose their licenses. Under Article 57, operating an unlicensed news site is punishable by a 3,000 to 10,000 dinar ($7,900 to $26,400) fine, website blocking, and the confiscation of equipment used for operating the site.116 The law had not been passed by the end of the coverage period.

There are some government restrictions on online advertising, but several opposition websites based outside Bahrain continue to operate nonetheless. While it is difficult for blocked websites to secure advertising, some popular blocked sites such as Bahrain Mirror operate with limited resources and are often self-funded.

B7 0-4 pts
Does the online information landscape lack diversity and reliability? 1 / 4

The internet remains the main source of information, and many people get their news from social media platforms.117 Social media offers space for discussion on issues not typically presented in traditional media such as local affairs, religion, gender issues, and migrant workers. Only outlets that operate from outside Bahrain can report on local politics freely, and many independent foreign-based sites are subject to blocking within Bahrain (see B1).

Online content restrictions are disproportionate and inconsistent, leading to lack of diversity of online content, especially around political issues. For example, in May 2020, authorities banned discussions criticizing the normalization of relations with Israel,118 yet there were no restrictions on content promoting the deal (see B5). In March and April 2020, activists noted that while the government targets those who criticize its policies, it fails to act against hate speech directed at the opposition or Shiites.119 According to Bahrain Mirror, high levels of self-censorship and the proliferation of progovernment media has shrunk space for divisive content online.120

The introduction of audio platforms such as Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces has provided an additional opportunity for users—within and outside the country—to have live discussions on political issues, human rights concerns, and social and cultural topics. While the government has yet to take action against Clubhouse or Twitter Spaces, commentators believe they will inevitably face questioning for their activities on the platform in the future.121

The government’s stringent information controls, coupled with attacks on social media, have forced some news sites, like Awal Online, to cease operations entirely (see B1 and B2). However, some blocked opposition websites and Bahraini news outlets based outside the country continue to receive traffic from users within Bahrain through the use of proxy services, dynamic IP addresses, and virtual private network (VPN) applications. The government used to block access to Google Translate and Google cached pages, which could be used as circumvention tools, but they were both found to be accessible in May 2022.122

Certain topics are not reported on by local media outlets. For example, the suspected use of spyware by the Bahraini government against citizens was largely omitted from mainstream media in Bahrain despite widespread reporting in international media (see C5).

B8 0-6 pts
Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues? 3 / 6

Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 due to authorities’ use of spyware and surveillance technology to target activists and dissidents and hinder online activism and mobilization.

Activists rely heavily on digital tools, particularly social media, to draw attention to protests and human rights violations. However, due to systemic online surveillance and the threat of arrest, prosecution, and other consequences for online activity, many users are wary of participating in political discussions over social media,123 and often use pseudonyms (see B4). In the past, authorities have blocked some tools used to mobilize or campaign, such as Telegram (see A3 and B1).

During the coverage period, reports emerged that Bahraini activists, many of whom mobilize human rights campaigns online, were targeted with spyware, likely by the government. In February 2022, Citizen Lab confirmed that the targets, many of whom had their phones infected with Pegasus spyware, included three activists (see C5).124 The crackdown on dissent via the use of invasive surveillance technology has further shrunk the already limited space for online mobilization and has encouraged self-censorship (see B4). Social media is one of the only spaces left for this kind of civic dissent in Bahrain.125

Even as its users increasingly self-censor, Twitter remains a key platform for mobilization. Users often use it to report on the status and conditions of detained activists and to call for their release.126 However, progovernment trolls frequently attempt to disrupt these campaigns (see B5). During the coverage period, Twitter was a vital space for Bahrainis to voice their objections to the normalization of ties with Israel. Twitter users conducted hashtag campaigns to oppose the Israeli Foreign Minister’s visit to Bahrain in February 2022.127

In recent years, feminist activism has been more noticeable in online discussions and on social media. Internet users have taken to social media to raise awareness of gender-based violence (GBV) and promote women’s rights.128 In August 2021, people took to social media to campaign for the right for women to pass down their Bahraini citizenship to their children.129 Currently, Bahraini women married to non-Bahraini men cannot pass their citizenship on to their children. Additionally, in September 2021, Twitter users brought attention to the challenges women who wish to get divorced face due to the strict nature of the Sharia courts.130

C Violations of User Rights

C1 0-6 pts
Do the constitution or other laws fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and are they enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence? 0 / 6

A variety of laws place restrictions on free speech, and the compromised judiciary does not uphold protections that do exist.

Article 23 of the constitution guarantees freedom of expression “provided that the fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine are not infringed, the unity of the people is not prejudiced, and discord or sectarianism is not aroused.”131 Article 26 states that all written, telephonic, and electronic communications will not be censored except in cases specified by law.132 The 2002 Press and Publications Law promises free access to information. Bahraini journalists have argued that qualifying statements and loosely worded clauses allow for arbitrary interpretation and, in practice, the negation of the rights the provisions claim to uphold.133

The Bahraini judicial system is neither independent nor fair.134 Serious crimes have been committed against internet users, including torture (see C7), and impunity for these offenses prevails.135

C2 0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities, particularly those that are protected under international human rights standards? 0 / 4

Multiple laws, including the penal code and terrorism laws, criminalize free speech and online activities.

Criminal penalties for online speech are currently enforced under the 2002 Press and Publications Law,136 which does not specifically mention online activities but has been applied to digital media. The law allows for prison sentences from six months to five years for publishing material that criticizes Islam, its followers, or the king, as well as material that instigates violent crimes or the overthrow of the government.137 Article 70 of the law penalizes certain types of content, including “false news” that undermines public security and criticism of presidents or states with which Bahrain has diplomatic ties.138 In addition, the 2002 Telecommunications Law contains penalties for several online activities, such as the transmission of messages that are offensive to public policy or morals.139

Those tried under the penal code or antiterror laws can face longer sentences than under the 2002 Press and Publications Law—especially for social media activity, where the press law is not applied.140 Article 290 of the penal code stipulates that “intentional misuse of telecommunication mediums” is punishable by up to 6 months’ imprisonment and a 50 dinar ($132) fine, but it is regularly combined with other articles for more severe punishments. Under the penal code, any user who deliberately spreads false information that may damage national security or public order can face up to two years’ imprisonment.141 Under Article 309, insults to religion or ridicule of their rituals may be punished by a fine of 100 dinars ($260) or a prison term of up to 1 year. In May 2019, the king ratified an amendment to Article 11 of the terrorism law that criminalizes propagating, glorifying, justifying, favoring, or encouraging acts that constitute terrorist activities, with a penalty of up to 5 years’ imprisonment and a 2,000 to 5,000 dinar fine ($5,300 to $13,200).142 Activists and lawyers warned social media users that commenting, retweeting, liking, or forwarding content could fall afoul of the amendment.143

Under the new draft Press, Publishing, and Printing Law, which was referred to the parliament for review,144 online news reporters can receive fines for publishing content that is deemed to fall into a list of vaguely worded categories including “false news, insulting the monarchy, subjecting it to criticism, or imposing responsibility on it for the actions of the government, undermining the regime, [or] news that will affect the value of the national currency” (see B6).145 In a positive development, the law abolishes the jailing of journalists, though they can still be penalized under the penal code.146 The law was not passed by the end of the coverage period.

In July 2020, the cabinet approved an amendment to the Civil Service Law that prohibits government employees from criticizing government decisions and prohibits them from publishing personal opinions if they foster “discord in society” or “affect national unity.” The law sets disciplinary actions ranging from salary cuts to dismissal from service in cases of multiple violations.147

In October 2019, the cabinet endorsed an updated draft amendment to the penal code that would increase the maximum prison sentence for posting private news, comments, or images deemed defamatory from 1 year to 5 years, and would increase the maximum fine for doing so from 500 to 3,000 dinars ($1,300 to $7,900).148 However, the amendment was still under discussion by the Council of Representatives at the end of the reporting period.149

C3 0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities, particularly those that are protected under international human rights standards? 2 / 6

Individuals are frequently detained and prosecuted for online activities, and those convicted typically receive prison sentences.

Between June 2021 and May 2022, at least 13 people were arrested, detained, or prosecuted for their online activities. The Bahrain Press Association has attributed the decrease in reported cases to the increase of self-censorship and people’s “limited willingness” to engage with public issues online (see B4).150 According to statistics published by the public prosecutor, 28 percent of the 1,137 cases “misuse of social media” recorded in 2021 were referred to the courts.151

In June 2021, Mohammad al-Zayani was arrested for posting an Instagram video in which he criticized the judicial system. In July 2021, he was sentenced to two years in prison for insulting the judiciary and the sentence was upheld by a court of appeals in August 2021.152 In November 2021, al-Zayani was released to serve an alternative noncustodial sentence.153

Internet users were prosecuted over seemingly harmless online posts during the reporting period. In December 2021, an expatriate living in Bahrain was sentenced to two months in prison and then deported after he posted a TikTok video of himself handling money in an “offensive manner.”154 He was charged with the “misuse of social media.” In December 2021, the owner of a children’s nursery was interrogated by the public prosecutor over a video she posted on the nursery’s Instagram account on the National Day of Bahrain. The video was of a play in which children performed scenes about unemployment, discrimination, and other social issues in Bahrain. She was released after deleting the video from Instagram (see B2).155

In February 2022, Mohamed Alghsra, the manager of the Delmon Post website, was interrogated by the public prosecutor for “posting false news” about a meeting between NGO representatives and the new US ambassador to Bahrain.156 The meeting was criticized by the MOI, which said that NGOs communicating with external parties can harm civil order.157

Dr. Sharifa Siwar, a psychologist who was sentenced to one year in prison in 2019 after creating an Instagram video about drug distribution in a Bahraini girls’ school, was subject to repeated prosecution during the coverage period.158 In December 2021, she announced that she was seeking asylum in the United Kingdom (UK).159 Despite her absence, in January 2022, the public prosecutor’s office stated that it would be taking new legal action against Siwar after she posted a video in which she accused members of Bahrain’s royal family of being involved in “promoting and selling drugs.”160 She is being charged with defamation.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, internet users were prosecuted for online posts. In June 2021, Abdulla AlSehli was interrogated on charges of spreading false news for tweeting about the Health Ministry’s slow response in aiding COVID-19 patients.161

At least three other internet users are still serving prison sentences for earlier online activities, including Abduljalil al-Singace, a human rights defender and blogger who has been serving a life sentence since 2011 on charges of possessing links to a terrorist organization,162 disseminating false news, and inciting antigovernment protests (see B5).163

C4 0-4 pts
Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption? 1 / 4

The government restricts the use of many VPNs, imposes onerous registration requirements on mobile phone users, and has sought to uncover the identities of anonymous or pseudonymous users in order to prosecute them.

The TRA requires users to provide identification when registering for telecommunications services, and the government prohibits the sale or use of unregistered prepaid SIM cards.164 A TRA regulation introduced in July 2017,requires people to be physically present when registering SIM cards directly with providers,165 who must verify the identity of all subscribers, including through fingerprinting,166 a measure justified as a security and anticrime measure.167 All prepaid SIM card users are required to renew registration annually to avoid service cuts.168 In June 2020, the TRA ordered STC Bahrain to immediately deactivate all unregistered cards (see A4).169

Tech-savvy activists use VPNs to conceal their identity, yet access to websites of popular VPNs and anonymity services like Tunnel Bear, Express VPN, and Tor are blocked, which makes it difficult to download their client applications. Anonymous government critics have been sent malicious links that allow authorities to ascertain their identity and take legal action against them (see C5).

A 2014 computer crimes law criminalizes the encryption of data with criminal intentions. Observers contend that “criminal intentions” could include criticism of the government.

C5 0-6 pts
Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy? 1 / 6

State surveillance of online activities is widespread and targets both government loyalists and the opposition. Several reports have documented the government’s use of spyware against dissidents.

Recent reports by Citizen Lab, a Canadian internet watchdog, have confirmed the use of Pegasus spyware in Bahrain. Pegasus is a targeted spyware software developed by the NSO Group, an Israeli technology firm that was blacklisted by the US commerce department in 2021.170 In February 2022, Citizen Lab confirmed that several Bahraini activists were targeted with NSO spyware, likely the Bahraini government. The targets, many of whom had their phones infected with the malware, included opposition lawyer Mohammed al-Tajer, who suspended his human rights activism in 2017 and has been targeted with surveillance in the past.171 Another target was Dr. Sharifa Siwar, a psychologist who was imprisoned for her online activity in 2019.172 Her phone was infected in June 2021, one month after she was pardoned by the king and released from prison (see C3).173

The list of identified potential targets of NSO spyware also includes Bahraini government officials, a US state department official who was stationed in Bahrain, 20 members of the Bahrain council of representatives, house speaker Fawzia Zainal, a member of the government-affiliated National Institution of Human Rights, and two members of the royal family, including Khalid Bin Ahmed Khalifa, the former minister of foreign affairs.174

Between June 2020 and February 2021, another nine activists were targeted with NSO spyware,175 including three human rights activists.176 In 2019, human rights activist and torture survivor Ebtisam al-Sabagh was also targeted with NSO spyware.177 After the user clicks on an exploit link, Pegasus is covertly installed on their phone, granting the operator access to information including passwords, contacts, text messages, and live voice calls from messaging apps, as well as the ability to open the camera and microphone. Bahraini human rights defenders and journalists were among those who had their devices attacked and WhatsApp data stolen.178

In October 2018, it was revealed that Bahrain had purchased espionage and intelligence-gathering software from private companies, including a system from Israeli company Verint used for collecting information from social networks, and that Bahraini intelligence officers were trained in their use.179

The Cybercrimes Department includes a social media monitoring unit that seeks to “identify and prevent… crimes” on social media. Department officials receive training to identify “permitted speech and forbidden speech,” whether it is text, video, or audio (see C3).180 A Cyber Safety Directorate within the Ministry of State for Telecommunications Affairs was launched in November 2013 to monitor websites and social media networks, ostensibly to prevent the instigation of violence or terrorism and the dissemination of false news that may “pose a threat to the kingdom's security and stability.”181

In January 2017, the government ratified the Arab Treaty on Combating Cybercrime, a set of standards developed to stem the misuse of telecommunications devices, financial fraud, the promotion of terrorism, and access to pornographic content online. The treaty establishes rules on user data retention and real-time monitoring, as well as a mechanism for sharing information between signatories to help combat transnational crime. The lack of strong human rights standards in the treaty may increase the scope for privacy infractions once it is transposed into local law.182

A personal data protection law was introduced in July 2018 (see C6). Article 2.4(b) exempts national security–related data processing undertaken by the MOI, the NSA, the Defense Ministry, and other security services.183

C6 0-6 pts
Does monitoring and collection of user data by service providers and other technology companies infringe on users’ right to privacy? 0 / 6

Since 2009, the TRA has mandated that all telecommunications companies keep a record of customers’ phone calls, emails, and website visits for up to three years. The companies are also obliged to provide security forces access to subscriber data upon request from the public prosecution, while the provision of the data content requires a court order.184

In order to receive an operating license, service providers must develop a Lawful Access Capability Plan that would allow security forces to access communications metadata. In 2020, two ISPs were fined by the TRA due to their lack of a Lawful Access Capability Plan (see A4).185 The provider 2Connect had its license revoked in February 2016 due to its failure to develop such a plan.

In July 2018, Bahrain introduced a personal data protection law similar to the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that delineates the requirements for entities collecting, processing, and storing personal data, including gaining user consent and informing them that data is being collected. The law became effective in August 2019.186 It is unclear what its enforcement might look like, but violators can be taken to court. As of March 2022, the Bahrain Data Protection Authority had issued several executive orders specifying the details of data owner rights, data processing procedures, and complaints handling procedures.187

According to transparency reports, no requests for user data had been made to Facebook,188 Snapchat,189 Google,190 or Twitter191 by the end of 2021. Information on local providers complying with the state’s requests for user data is not made public.

C7 0-5 pts
Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in relation to their online activities? 2 / 5

Score Change: The score improved from 1 to 2 because fewer cases of physical harassment in response to online content were reported during the coverage period than in previous years.

Violence and torture against online activists and journalists at the hands of authorities is common in Bahrain.192

Individuals commenting on the November 2020 death of Prime Minister al-Khalifa faced mistreatment at the hands of the authorities. A 60-year-old woman reportedly lost consciousness while being interrogated,193 while a teenage girl was interrogated without her parents or lawyer being present and was forced to sign a confession.194 Detainees, including minors, were prohibited from contacting families or managing their hygienic needs while in detention (see C3).195

In June 2018, Najah Ahmed Yousif was sentenced to three years in prison based on a coerced confession over comments made in a Facebook post. She said she was tortured and sexually assaulted during her interrogation.196 The Bahraini Ombudsman, to whom she raised a complaint, has not held anyone accountable for her torture. During her imprisonment, which ended in August 2019, Yousif suffered mistreatment and was only permitted to see her family once.197

Numerous online activists have fled Bahrain, including blogger and Bahrain Online forum founder Ali Abdulemam, who was detained and tortured in 2010 and received a 15-year sentence from a military court in a separate 2011 case.198 In 2013 and 2014, blogger Mohamed Hasan and Twitter activist Hussein Mahdi were tortured in detention.199 Hasan fled Bahrain in 2014, followed by Mahdi in 2015. In 2017, online activist Yousif al-Jamri fled Bahrain after facing increasing intimidation by the NSA following his publication of a video alleging that NSA officials had subjected him to physical and psychological torture, threatened him with rape and reprisals against his family, and forced him to insult his religion.200 In December 2021, Dr. Sharifa Siwar, who has faced prosecution for her Instagram videos (see C3),201 announced that she was leaving Bahrain after being harassed by Bahrani authorities (see C5).202

Bahraini activists living abroad are subject to online threats from people affiliated with the security forces.203 In March 2021, activist Hasan Abdulnabi received threats against his family in an attempt to force him to stop his Instagram activities, where he posts critical comments on Bahraini politics.204 In June 2018, an Instagram account apparently belonging to an MOI officer sent messages to activist Sayed Yousif al-Muhafdha threatening the arrest of his brothers in Bahrain unless he stopped his activism, closed his social media accounts within a day, and sent a video apologizing to the king.205 The same account sent a death threat to Bahrain-based human rights activist Ebtisam al-Saegh, and claimed they would release a video of the torture and sexual assault she was subjected to during her 2017 detention.206

The Bahraini electronic army has posted messages discrediting Bahraini activists (see B5), including messages calling Bahraini opposition figure Saeed al-Shehabi an Iranian agent207 and others accusing al-Muhafdha of corruption and dishonesty.208

In May 2019, the MOI accused al-Muhafdha, who lives in exile in Germany, of running social media accounts encouraging sedition, harming public order, and tarnishing the country’s image.209 That same month, the MOI targeted the Twitter account of Adel Marzooq, an exiled journalist and chief editor of the Gulf House for Studies and Publishing, threatening to act against the organization and those who promoted its messages.210 The threats came after Marzooq speculated on a conflict within the royal family over replacing the prime minister.211 In January 2022, Marzooq said that his three-year-old daughter was not provided a Bahraini passport, in apparent retaliation for his online activity.212

C8 0-3 pts
Are websites, governmental and private entities, service providers, or individual users subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack? 1 / 3

Cyberattacks against both opposition and government supporters are common in Bahrain.

In January 2022, the head of the National Center for Cyber Security said that Bahrain has been targeted with numerous “electronic terrorism” attacks from foreign countries.213 The cybersecurity firm Kaspersky reported five million malware attacks on Bahraini internet users in the first half of 2021.214 In July 2021, the website and Instagram and YouTube accounts of the Al-Wafa opposition group were hacked by unknown attackers.215 In June 2021, the Bahrain Development Bank was subject to an electronic attack that suspended its operation for over two weeks.216 The perpetrator of this attack is unknown.

In August 2021, Bahrain’s Information and eGovernment Authority (iGA) issued a warning about text messages purportedly containing infected links to register for COVID-19 booster shots. These messages contained malware that would give hackers access to infected mobile devices.217 The perpetrator of this attack is unknown.