Bahrain Mirror (Exclusive): Do you want to know who rules Bahrain these days? It is the Anti-Cybercrime Directorate, which was established in 2011 for the purpose of combating cybercrimes, child pornography, online-stalking, viruses, hacking programs and online credit fraud, as the Directorate states on its website. However, this Directorate now has nothing else to do but pursue opinion-makers and journalists on social media, read their tweets, summon them for interrogation, arrest them, refer them to the Public Prosecution or prosecute them in sham trials. In reality, it is an anti-opinion directorate combating those who express their views on the internet.
Four tweeters were summoned during the first four days of 2020. Among the known cases were: Akil Swar, Nader Abdulimam and Yousif Al-Khaja. However, almost 30 tweeters were summoned and interrogated in 2019, while 10 of them were referred to the Prosecution. Some of the tweeters were sentenced to prison terms ranging between 3 to 6 months and 1 to 5 years, let alone the fines imposed on them.
In a phone call with journalist Akil Swar, head of Cybercrime Directorate Bassam Al-Miraj justified his demand to Akil to delete all tweets related to the assassination of Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani by saying that "the region is in a critical situation because of what is happening in Iraq and we are trying to distance Bahrain from anything that would link us to what is going on."
However, the authorities only apply this to Bahrainis who have an independent opinion. Government supporters continue to regularly publish their opinions in newspapers and on social media regarding the said incident. Leader of the "dissolved" Wa'ad Society, Yousif Al-Khaja, pointed out to the interior ministry that a loyalist tackled, in a video clip, the same issue over which Al-Khaja was summoned, without receiving any objection from the ministry.
Another citizen was summoned only because he commented on the same incident writing: "We belong to Allah, and to him we shall return. There is no might nor power except in Allah," on a local news account on Instagram. The citizen was threatened and forced to sign a confession "not to glorify terrorists or promote them".
The fact is that the Anti-Cybercrime Directorate won't leave any means that would give it the upper hand in discussions in the virtual public space, whether the issue is related to critical regional events or other events. It has become the first arbiter of every opinion that is not in line with government adaptation. For example, in the past year, tweeters were accused of: insulting the Interior Ministry, insulting the head of a foreign state or sisterly state, insulting the divine entity, or publishing lewd photos.
In 2019, the Cassation Court upheld a 6-month prison term against Ibrahim Sharif, Secretary-General of the dissolved "Wa'ad" Society with a 3-year suspension of sentence over a false charge of "insulting ousted Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir".
Law No. 60 of 2014, concerning Information Technology Crimes according to which the Anti-Cybercrime Directorate acts and which regulates the directorate's work, does not include anything related to online surveillance of expression of opinion or political content, except of content related to circulating, distributing, sending, spreading, or publishing pornography, especially that directed to children. This is the only case mentioned under the "Content-related offences" clause in article 10. Otherwise, there is no reference in the said law that gives it any authority over opinion.
Besides, the six types of crimes that fall within the scope of the Anti-Cybercrime Directorate's work and which are written on the homepage of its website contain nothing related to the crimes of freedom of expression.
However, in the last two years 2018-2019, it seemed that their main concern was people who post their opinions on the internet. Only one out of the 30 cases summoned the past year was related to the dissemination of pornographic material on social networking sites. The other cases (29) were related to independent stances that discussed the performance of government ministries and services. The president of the Muharraq Club Fan Association, Saad Mahboub, was summoned after he posted a video on Instagram about the club rival to his. Online activist Mohamed Hassan Al-Aradi was summoned for questioning about tweets about the unfair distribution of scholarships. Online activist Aref Al-Mulla was also summoned for interrogation over opinions he made on social media criticizing the installation of inaccurate meters by the Ministry of Electricity.
These are just examples, but they show a big contradiction between the original goal of the Anti-Cybercrime Directorate [which does not include anything related to the subjects these summonses are based on] and what it actually does on the ground. The directorate often exploits articles in the Penal Code and the Anti-Terrorism Act to expand its powers.
Criminalizing "follow" and "retweet" last year was only an additional power it offered itself to control public opinion and make sure that nothing is out of what is desirable or planned. Therefore, cyberspace has been almost completely confiscated. Even the limited freedom that was available in the first four years following the events of February 14, 2011 has been taken away. The "microphone" is now only in the hands of the Anti-Cybercrime Directorate.