If silence is golden then Bahrain would have been basking in fortune if it were not for the scandalous commentaries of Robert Fisk.
In a May 14 piece for The Independent, the award-winning British journalist shamed both politicians and media for not speaking out against the violence employed by Bahrain’s ruling al-Khalifa family to suppress the protest movement and its calls for political reform, led by the kingdom’s Shia majority lead.
Fisk was at it again on June 14, provokingly asking “if the Khalifa family has gone mad” by prosecuting 48 surgeons, doctors, nurses and paramedics for a series of crimes varying from concealing weapons to refusing to assist people in need. The latter is of especially bitter irony, as there are numerous accounts of how Bahrain’s medical personnel worked tirelessly to treat the hundreds of casualties, most of whom had been shot. Aided by Saudi troops and tanks, the Bahraini army crushed the opposition: according to official figures, some 30 people were killed, though it is feared that the death toll could run into the hundreds, while thousands of people disappeared behind bars. Many assert that the charges against the 48 medical professionals were cooked up as punishment for offering medical treatment to “subversives” and as a warning not to speak about what they had seen.
Fisk’s rage culminated in this parting shot: “Bahrain is no longer the kingdom of the Khalifas. It has become a Saudi palatinate, a confederated province of Saudi Arabia, a pocket-size weasel state from which all journalists should in future use the dateline: Manama, Occupied Bahrain.” It seems this was the symbolic final straw for the Khalifas, who were already in a foul mood due to the cancelation of the Bahrain Grand Prix. The world racing authorities in early June first announced that the F1 race — originally slated for March but postponed due to the popular uprising — was back on track, only to change their minds again a week later, following a wave of protests, some by a number of leading drivers.
Who could have guessed? F1 drivers reading The Independent! Furious, and missing out on up to half a billion dollars in revenues, Bahrain on June 14 announced it was to sue Fisk and his newspaper for slander.
According to the state-run Bahrain News Agency (BNA), they “deliberately published a series of unrealistic and provocative articles targeting Bahrain and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA)… [and failed] to abide by professional impartiality and credibility in their one-sided news-coverage and reports.”
F1 drivers reading, and Bahrain and Saudi Arabia preaching about the principles of journalism: what on earth has become of this world? Yet, while the tiny desert kingdom and its bigger brother may find little trouble in silencing their own media (and medical workers), the decision to sue Fisk in Britain is likely to have a reverse effect. Firstly, Britain has a proud journalistic tradition and arguably does not like to be told what it can and cannot say by a country that excels in censorship and has not exactly boosted its reputation in recent months.
Secondly, with every day in court the British press is offered a gold-plated opportunity to recall what Fisk wrote and wonder if his words reflected correctly what happened in Bahrain during the first months of2011. Thirdly, the British trial is likely to draw attention to the parallel “medical trial” in Bahrain. And so the British press may just decide to look into the case of one senior surgeon on trial, who during the demonstrations wrote a series of emails to a British colleague. On February 17, for example, he wrote: “It has been a long day in the theatre with massively injured patients equivalent to a massacre.”
“Three weeks of hell,” he wrote in early April. “The military took control of the Salmaniya Hospital, doctors, nurses, paramedics and patients treated as suspects.” The surgeon in question himself was arrested in April and has not been seen since.
While suing Fisk and The Independent is unlikely to silence either, and arguably only enhances the kind of media attention Bahrain wants to avoid, there is a real danger that a long legal battle may bleed the British daily dry before truth, justice and freedom of speech can prevail. For now, however, the lawsuit can only be seen as a victory for the few who dare speak up, while others watch in silence.
PETER SPEETJEN is a Beirut-based journalist