DUBAI (Reuters) - Bahrain, a U.S. ally that hosts the Navy’s Fifth Fleet, has warned citizens and residents that following anti-government social media accounts could result in legal action, hardening a government campaign against critical online voices.
The interior ministry sent text messages to Bahraini phones late last week warning that “following accounts which are biased or incite discord could expose you to legal liability”.
The government had said in mid-May that “promoting” views on such accounts would result in legal measures being taken, but singling out the specific act of following critical accounts for legal action is a new development.
Since a 2011 Shi’ite Muslim-led uprising in which dozens died and saw troops sent in from neighbouring ally Saudi Arabia, Sunni-ruled Bahrain has pursued a wide-ranging security crackdown.
Hundreds have been imprisoned and stripped of their nationality, sometimes in mass trials, and the main opposition parties have been banned.
Most opposition figures are now either imprisoned or have fled abroad. U.N. and rights groups have accused authorities of torture in detention.
The latest crackdown on dissent has targeted Bahrainis, mostly abroad, running social media accounts.
The push began in mid-May when the interior ministry said it was taking legal steps against people running accounts from “Iran, Qatar, Iraq and some European countries such as France, Germany and Australia”.
It urged people to avoid dealing or interacting with such accounts and said legal measures would be taken against people “promoting their messages”.
Then on Thursday, the ministry tweeted that following and circulating “inflammatory” social media accounts that promote “sedition” would expose people to legal liabilities.
“Closing them immediately is a national duty,” it said.
An expanded ministry statement on Saturday said these instructions do not impinge on freedom of speech as such content “intends to harm civil peace and the social fabric”.
The statements did not identify the accounts, but social media posts started circulating on WhatsApp and pro-government Instagram pages identifying intended accounts, activist sources told Reuters.
Among those highlighted were the named Twitter accounts of German-based human rights activist Sayed Yousif al-Muhafdha, Australian-based activist Hassan al-Sitri, British-based activist Saeed Shehabi and opposition media outlets Lulu TV and Bahrain Mirror.
At least two men, Muhafdha and Sitri, were charged in May by Bahraini authorities in connection with running social media accounts.
The recent pro-government posts identifying the accounts accused some of these activists of being funded by Qatar. Since 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt have imposed an economic and diplomatic boycott on Qatar over allegations that Doha supports terrorism, a charge Qatar denies.
The origin of these posts could not be verified.
Earlier this month, an article of a state terrorism law that imposes prison terms and fines on those guilty of “promoting any crime carried out for a terrorism purposes” was expanded to encompass anyone “promoting, glorifying, justifying, approving or supporting acts which constitute terrorist activities” inside or outside Bahrain.
The Bahraini government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Reporting by Lisa Barrington; editing by David Evans