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Bahrain Opinion: An Open Letter to Journalists "Get The Story Right"

Nabeel Rajab, President of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, who was attacked by police on Friday

See also Bahrain Interview: Nabeel Rajab - How Police Attacked the Manama March and Beat Me
Bahrain Feature: Dar Kulaib --- The Regime's "Sectarian" Tactics and A Village Under Assault
Bahrain, Syria (and Beyond) LiveBlog: An Inconvenient Beating, An Inconclusive Meeting

Dear Journalists,

Over the coming days, you might find the need to report on Bahrain. Beyond a quick feature about the Countess of Wessex's jewels, courtesy of the regime, or the proposed Formula One Grand Prix, you might notice a story which has got the regime worried about its image.

On Friday, Nabeel Rajab, the President of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, was beaten by police in Manama. The activist was at the head of a peaceful march and had been talking with security forces, moments before they suddenly attacked. This is not an unusual event in Bahrain at the moment (indeed, by current standards, the police were relatively restrained) but it is significant because Rajab is internationally-respected as a champion of human rights.

The Bahraini regime, and presumably its PR consultants, have a series of lines they are advancing to the media to spin both this specific incident and the wider story. Below are four reporting pitfalls into which several media organisations fell this weekend:

1) The Ministry of Interior (MOI) footage is deliberately edited to create a false account

On Saturday, the MOI released a video to support their version of events. They claim that police found Rajab on the floor and then kindly helped him up and escorted him to an ambulance. The video conveniently leaves out much of the incident. Two videos recorded by protesters capture the event much better.

These two videos, featured on EA along with the MOI footage, have been available since Friday night. Therefore there is no good reason for why BBC chooses only to link to the MOI video, and why CNN introduces the footage with the headline, "Bahrain denies it beats activist". (On a side note to CNN, I can confirm for you that @NabeelRajab is definitely Rajab, so you no longer need to caveat your report with: "writing on a Twitter account with his name and picture, that the Bahrain Center for Human Rights said is his".)

There are photos of Rajab which establish he was cut under his eye, with bruising on his face. Therefore, saying the information of his wounds was obtained from "a senior U.S. official told Reuters on condition of anonymity", raises the wholly unnecessary inference that he might not actually have been injured.

Further information is in Rajab's version of events in an EA interview.

2) Nabeel Rajab is not a "Shia Activist"

Many reports this weekend have identified Rajab as a "Shia", or as the Telegraph wonderfully puts it, "a Shia Muslim activist". Firstly, on a point of fact, Rajab is secular and comes from a mixed Shia and Sunni family. Secondly, even if he was a practicing Shia, why would this be a relevant detail? His work is concerned with human rights and the protest on Friday was concerned with the alleged mistreatment and possible torture of political detainees, such as Hassan 'Oun.

3) The opposition movement in Bahrain is not a Shia movement

Bahrain's largest opposition party --- the Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society --- is a Shiite party, but it neither represents, nor speaks for, the wider opposition movement whose aims are simply stated: "Down, down [King] Hamad". There is a huge problem with a lack of Shia representation in national governance, but this is much better viewed as a consequence of the Al-Khalifa family's historic and continuing racism. Put bluntly, the opposition is against what they perceive as a dictatorship and, as such, the regime's particular religous makeup is not the specific interest. Furthermore, the opposition is comprised of a broad cross-section of Bahraini society (with the broad exclusion of the mega-rich) and as the case of Nabeel Rajab shows, individuals come from a multitude of backgrounds.

It is essential that this is understood. The Bahraini regime is trying to paint the opposition movement as not just a religiously-motivated movement, but an Islamist movement aligned to terrorist organisations, who is supported and financed by Iran. This is not just nonsense, it is pernicious. Moreover, it is a narrative being spun by in order to bolster regime attempts to frame the unrest as sectarian. Wrong-headed accounts like this from the Chicago Tribune feed this strategy and a false narrative:

The Sunni-led island kingdom, home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, last year sought to crush anti-government demonstrations mounted by the country's Shi'ite Muslim majority.

So do sub-headings like "Shia anger" in this BBC article.

4) Iran is being used as a bogeyman by the regime

The BBC, citing its man Rajesh Mirchandani in Washington DC, writes in relation to the US State Department's concerns:

Even though the US wants to support democracy movements in the Middle East, Sunni-led Bahrain is a key ally against Iran's Shia influence, our correspondent adds.

The Bahraini regime is worried about losing Washington's support as a consequence of its continued violence against its own citizens. As such, it likes to regularly play the "Iran card".

This is one reason why the regime is so keen to paint the opposition as a Shia movement, to help make the story of Iranian backing believable, sometimes with the added spin of involvement by Lebanon's Hezbollah. The regime is well aware that America views Bahrain as a strategic base for projecting power into the Gulf region, so raising the spectre of Iran is intended to help the US turn a blind eye to human rights abuses. And far from incidentally, the Western media is filled already with heightened rhetoric painting Iran as a major threat, and the Bahraini regime and the PR companies assisting it know that pretending they are a bulwark against Tehran plays well in the press.

Saqer AlKhalifa is the media attaché to the Bahrain Embassy in Washington. AlKhalifa had a busy year briefing journalists and other organisation with the latest regime spin. On Friday night, not long after Rajab was released from hospital, Saqer was on a plane back to Washington from Bahrain. After announcing this news, his next tweet was: "Interesting new turn: "February 14 Freedom Movement" invoke [late Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah] Khomeini by calling for burning US flag". The fact that he tweeted the BBC article, with its lines about Iran and "Shia anger", rather than the widely circulated and well-rounded Reuters account, is, I feel, telling.

Thank you for your consideration of this request.

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