MANAMA (Reuters) - When the Gulf Arab state of Bahrain launched a crackdown on its Shi‘ite Muslim opposition last month, social media sites found themselves in the firing line too.
Twenty-three men were charged with plotting to overthrow the political system -- where the Sunni Muslim Al Khalifa dynasty rules over a restive Shi‘ite majority -- partly through organizing a campaign of street protests and media activism.
In the crackdown before elections due this Saturday, the board of one human rights group was also suspended, and the popular forum BahrainOnline was closed down and the blogger who founded it, Ali Abdulemam, arrested.
It was a backhanded compliment to an online community of activists whose dynamism and resourcefulness has been an example for the rest of the Gulf region.
“Bahraini activists are using the technology very well. The government fires back, but there are always back doors that the technology provides,” said Ahmed Mansoor, a prominent blogger in the United Arab Emirates.
“Bahrainis are definitely more advanced than the rest of the Gulf countries in knowing, and demanding, their political rights,” Mansoor added.
BahrainOnline started in 1999 with lively debates on domestic politics and discrimination against Shi‘ites.
Through Abdulemam’s efforts, it reached over 100,000 daily hits and had thousands of members, despite being officially blocked by Bahraini authorities most of the time.
Now they are migrating elsewhere, said Nabeel Rajab of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR).
“When the government shut down these websites, people moved to an international platform, which is Facebook,” he said. The number of friends on his Facebook page jumped from around 1,000 to 2,300 in the weeks following the crackdown.
“Bloggers are technically very aware and circumventing censorship has become second nature to them,” said popular Bahraini blogger Mahmood Al-Yousif.
Bahrain, a regional banking hub whose hosting of the U.S. Fifth Fleet makes its stability important to Washington, has one of the more politically and socially open societies in the conservative Arabian Peninsula region.
Bahrain is also seen by fellow Sunni-run states such as Saudi Arabia as a bulwark against the growing influence of Shi‘ite power Iran, whose nuclear program has unnerved Gulf Arab states -- one reason why demands for more political reform annoy the ruling elite.
Shi‘ites complain of widespread discrimination in housing and government jobs and say the government is settling foreign Sunni Muslims to offset Shi‘ite demographic strength. The government denies all these charges.
An island state of some 1.3 million people, Bahrain tries to attract foreign investment and entice international firms to set up offices by presenting itself as a liberal environment for business and pleasure.
The Internet telephony firm Skype opened its regional representative office in Manama this year.
In August, Bahrain took out an advertisement in international media showing a Blackberry device that read: “Fact: Bahrain has the most liberal telecoms market in the Gulf” -- an apparent swipe at Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which threatened to cut Blackberry services this year.
However, last April Bahrain had suspended a Blackberry news group run by a local journalist. Last month it banned the group for violating media laws.
Bahrain has so far avoided being listed by the global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders alongside its neighbor Saudi Arabia as a country that censors the internet.
Bahrain says it uses censorship is only to block pornographic content and websites that incite violence and stir sectarian tensions, not to silence opposition voices.
Still, the repressive atmosphere of late could frighten many off discussing social, political and religious issues.
“Being outspoken has a price tag, not everybody is willing to do it,” said Amira Al Hussaini, the Middle East and Africa editor of globalvoicesonline.org, an international community of bloggers. “People have given up, there is a sense of failure, it’s a depressed mood amongst bloggers.”
The BCHR says it fears that Abdulemam, who is married with three children, may have been abused in detention. He was detained for a month in 2005 along with two others because of messages posted on BahrainOnline that were critical of the ruling regime.
It says that after closing BahrainOnline, the authorities will probably have gained access to the names of users and contributors.
“There are indications that the crackdown, which first targeted activists on the ground, is now directed toward online activists,” the group said in a recent statement.
Pro-government activists taunt opposition activists on the social networking tool Twitter.
“The ‘Kingdom of Bahrain’ hashtag (identifier) is much cleaner now after shutting them up. Finally,” an anonymous tweeter who has insulted and threatened activists said last month.
Some opposition figures answer back.
“Saying the truth is a hard job in a place like Bahrain,” Reem Khalifa, an editor at opposition paper al-Wasat, tweeted this week.
Writing and additional reporting by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Kevin Liffey