Bahrain web crackdown triggers calls for reform

MANAMA Mon Feb 9, 2009 11:44am EST

A person uses a mouse in this undated file photo. REUTERS/File

A person uses a mouse in this undated file photo.

Credit: Reuters/File

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MANAMA (Reuters) - A Bahraini crackdown on websites the government deems indecent or socially explosive has triggered calls for reforms by rights activists and bloggers, who say the ban tarnishes the kingdom's reputation for openness.

"Instead of tackling the social issues people discuss online, the government blocks websites. But that does not change the reality," said Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.

"Hundreds of websites are blocked now, and many are related to politics, human rights issues or are Shia community forums."

Bahrain's Culture and Information Minister Sheikha Mai bint Mohammed al-Khalifa issued a decree in January advising local Internet service providers to block access to websites it considers pornographic or incite violence and religious hatred.

Bahrain is Sunni-ruled but has a majority Shi'ite Muslim population who complain of marginalization in jobs and services, a charge government officials deny.

In a written response to questions from Reuters, the Ministry of Information said it was committed to freedom of opinion and expression but seeks to prevent their abuse.

It did not say how many websites are blocked and did not comment on claims access to political forums is prevented.

It said some websites were blocked "as a result of technical mistakes" and it was looking into the use of more advanced technology to prevent those errors.

Other Gulf Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also block websites.

Bahraini bloggers said censorship could be easily circumvented and only damages the reputation of the Gulf Arab kingdom, which seeks to attract investors by presenting itself as the freest economy in the region.

"I will still go to the same websites I went to and get all the media I got before the ban. I am not affected. Bahrain is," a Bahraini blogger who calls himself Manaf Almuhandis wrote on his blog, The Redbelt.

An anonymous Bahraini blogger who publishes under the name Silly Bahraini Girl said: "Of course I can access porn sites if I feel like it but not any of the Shia online forums, opposition websites or anything with the word proxy in its domain."

Access to websites that provide tools to circumvent the censorship -- or proxies -- are also blocked by the ministry, but bloggers see that as futile because these tools are quickly moved to other websites once one has been blocked.

The move by al-Khalifa, who was appointed in November, has dismayed some who were hopeful she would prove forward-looking.

"We were optimistic when she came, and many people viewed her as progressive, but the decree (on banning websites) was the first decision she took," said Rajab, from the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.

(Editing by Thomas Atkins and Sophie Hares)

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