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The Regime in Bahrain Needs to Drop the PR, and do its Homework

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Last month, in Bahrain's Gulf Daily News, the pro-regime journalist Anwar Abdulrahman launched a stinging attack on the western PR firms hired by the Gulf autocracy to improve its image overseas after the uprising of February-March 2011. The likes of Qorvis Communications and Bell Pottinger had provided no value for their "millions of dollars in fees". Despite "placing opinion pieces...in media outlets, briefing western journalists, creating websites and feeding social media accounts", Bahrain's coverage remained decidedly unfavourable. How could this be?

Abdulrahman offered two explanations, and a solution. First, when the messenger is handsomely paid to give you a certain message, it is hard to take that message at face value. Second, if the propaganda offensive itself becomes the story, it has effectively failed. The solution was to task Bahrain's "own media and PR professionals" with the regime's rehabilitation, as they were not "mercenaries" but people with a personal stake in the operation's success. However, judging by a recent effort that has come to my attention, it is unlikely that this alternative approach will fare any better.

A few weeks ago I was contacted by a British consultancy, mi-commsPR, on behalf of a Bahraini firm, Miracle Publishing, asking if I'd be interested in reviewing a collection of photojournalism covering the events of two years ago. Miracle Publishing is a branch of a "brand communications agency" which has previously done work for the regime's Ministry of Agriculture and Municipal Affairs. The book, "20/20", had recently received favourable coverage in Bahraini state media when Miracle's CEO Khalid Juman presented the Minister of Information with a copy.

As Sara Yasin, who works on Bahrain for the free speech NGO Index on Censorship , notes,"20/20 tries very hard to appear objective and balanced, and anyone who didn't know the facts could be forgiven for thinking that it was. But actually, it reflects the regime's narrative exactly". If you were previously unfamiliar with what took place in Bahrain in 2011, "20/20" would give you the impression that the opposition, having been able to protest freely and promised dialogue by the government, showed itself to be implacable and unwilling to engage in talks. Its protests became increasingly disruptive to normal life, were often violent, and eventually the security services were forced to step in to restore order. Much space is given to images of the huge and broad-based pro-democracy movement that flowered in the spring of 2011, thus giving a superficial impression of even-handedness. But the overall version of events that is presented by the book is jarringly at odds with what has been documented by leading human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Aside from occasional quotations from foreign newspaper headlines, the reader would have little sense of what was missing from the picture. She would not know that early on in the uprising, "army tanks entered the peaceful protest camp at Pearl Roundabout, destroying what had become a symbol of resistance and hope", quoting Amnesty International. She would not know that riot police had attacked "without warning" at in the dead of night, "firing tear gas and concussion grenades at the thousands of demonstrators who were sleeping" in the camp, as "men, women and young children ran screaming, choking and collapsing", leaving at least two killed and many injured, as reported by the New York Times.

The reader would gain the impression that protesters and even some medical staff had obstructed the functioning of the capital's main Salmaniya Medical Complex, necessitating police intervention. She would not know that, on the contrary, Human Rights Watch had "documented an alarming pattern of attacks, mainly by Bahraini troops and security forces, against medical workers, medical institutions, and patients suspected of participating in protests", and an apparent "systematic campaign by the Bahraini government aimed punishing and intimidating medical professionals suspected of sympathies with protesters and hindering access to health care facilities for persons wounded by security forces". She would not know that patients suspected of involvement in demonstrations had been beaten and tortured as regime forces kept the hospital under lockdown.

The reader would see repeated and prominent mention of the Bahraini royals' appeals for "national unity", but no mention that government forces were "reported to have destroyed at least 40 Shi'a mosques and religious meeting places" and even "dug up the graves of revered Shi'a holy men" in their brutally sectarian post-uprising crackdown, according to Amnesty. She might even take away a spurious impression that state and protestors had suffered comparably, where in fact, of the at least 47 people who died, some three or four had been security officials, while out of more than 2,500 people arrested, at least five died in custody as a result of torture.

Miracle CEO Khalid Juman assures me that the regime had no involvement whatsoever in the production of the book, which may be true, although it is hard to see what they would have done differently. Indeed, the fact that the government saw advance proofs and gave Miracle the all-clear for publication speaks volumes, given its sadistic treatment of those expressing dissenting views. Juman tells me that his intention was to present a scrupulously neutral account of events, unlike the "one sided", "black and white" version offered by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. One suspects the day Miracle's credibility trumps that of the world's leading human rights organisations will be a long time coming.

The book was released to coincide with the current second anniversary of the uprising, as it appears was the regime's latest "National Dialogue", which began earlier this month. But these official exercises, and the book's depiction of a reasonable royal family happy to talk with its opponents, are somewhat undermined by the regime's habit of jailing and torturing dissidents. Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, a leading prisoner of conscience currently serving a life sentence in jail, asked: "How can you have a dialogue if representatives of the groups you mean to dialogue with are in prison?". Amnesty reports that "in recent months, people have been jailed simply for daring to express their views" or participating in "peaceful marches". Last November, three people "were sentenced to between four and six months in prison for insulting the King of Bahrain". All in all, the suggestion that the regime is genuinely interested in "dialogue" does not appear entirely convincing. Even opposition members participating in the talks approach them with profound scepticism. According to Bahraini pro-democracy activist, Ala'a Shehabi, "no one is really taking [the "National Dialogue"] seriously".

Given their demonstrably vacuous nature, these lavish PR exercises are unlikely solve the regime's image problem overseas. If it really wants to haul its reputation out of the gutter, it needs to put the propaganda aside and concentrate on doing its homework. That means the immediate and unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience, a complete end to restrictions on freedom of expression, and all officials responsible for killing protesters and torturing detainees being brought to justice. In the absence of these basic steps, Amnesty says, "recent institutional reforms and the national dialogue will be empty exercises".

There is also a lesson here for Bahrain's supporters in the west, principally Britain and the United States, who have attempted to hide behind the regime's hollow pretence of reform and dialogue as they continue to sell it arms and maintain their close alliances. A UK-Bahrain defence agreement, reportedly including a focus on "internal stability" was signed in October 2012 with the absolute minimum of media coverage. But the evidently embarrassing nature of the partnership is not something that can simply be hidden from public view. Only last week it emerged that the Mons Hall at Sandhurst military academy - named after a First World War battle that claimed the lives of 1,600 British troops - was to be renamed after the King of Bahrain, in thanks for a £3 million donation. It was an episode guaranteed to spread revulsion at the relationship between the two states across a very wide audience.

As further violence hits the streets of Bahrain, the shame for bringing matters to this point lies, not just with a regime that chose to violently crush an overwhelmingly peaceful pro-democracy movement, but with its allies and enablers in the west. If the British government wants to avoid further public disgrace, it needs to get serious about its purported democratic values, cancel the defence agreement with the regime and put an immediate and complete end to all arms sales.

Because the truth is that Abdulrahman was mistaken. The problem is not the messenger; it is the reality. Bahrain needs concrete and immediate change from autocracy to democracy. The PR will no longer wash.