The man in the image above is a "saboteur" — not a pro-democracy protester.
And those fiery armored vehicles bearing down on him are "enlightened peace keepers" being trained to become a "highly modern and sensitive public security force" — not part of the brutal Bahraini security forces who killed at least 13 people in an uprising last year and a 14th protestor less than two weeks ago.
That is, at least if you're to believe emails sent to me by a former leading political editor from the United Kingdom whose job it is now to front for the Kingdom of Bahrain in their pursuit of better press from western outlets.
It was part of an orchestrated campaign by Bahrain's ruling elite who want the return of the Formula One race later this month that was cancelled last year when the country was one of many states involved in what the west has dubbed the "Arab Spring."
The race is back on — as of now — thanks to this effort to convince the press that all is well in the tiny Arab kingdom.
Perfect conditions for a race if you don't mind the occasional tear gas or dead protestor. Excuse me, "saboteur."
Bahrain And The "Arab Spring"
Bahrain is an Island kingdom in the Persian Gulf of about 300 square miles with a population of only 1.23 million. It's nominally a constitutional monarchy, although all real power lies within the hands of the royal family, led by King Hamad bin isa Al Khalifa. The unelected prime minster — the longest serving prime minister in the world — is the King's uncle.
As with many of the countries in the region, there are religious differences. The ruling elite are Sunni. The majority of the country is Shiite. Despite previous attempts at weak political reform the Shiite majority is mainly poor with little political power.
Pro-Democracy groups representing the marginalized portions of the population called for a day of action and took to the streets on February14th, 2011 in the midst of the "Arab Spring." First a few thousand individuals appeared and then, eventually, hundreds of thousands. Nearly a quarter of the population may have protested at one point or another. They gathered around the Pearl Monument in Pearl Square in the capital city of Manama — a 300-foot sculpture that became a symbol of the protests. Their version of Egypt's Tahrir Square.
On March 16th security forces started disassembling protest camps using force and two days later the government tore down the Pearl Monument with help of tanks and troops from fellow Sunni-led countries Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. On state television they called it an effort to improve traffic flow, which is such a obvious lie it would be funny if it weren't so terrible.
In total, there were at least 13 civilians known killed in February and March by security forces, according to the report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), which was formed in response to the events (you can read it here in PDF form). Of the 13 civilian deaths in that period, five were allegedly tortured to death. There are 19 other deaths likely attributable to security forces. Thousands of Bahrainis were arrested, injured, fired, tortured, or some mix of all of those.
Protestors, though poorly armed, also did kill security forces. A total of three police officers and one defense forces officer were killed in February and March by demonstrators. The protests were largely crushed and the United States and other Western governments mostly stood by as the strategic importance — the U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain and it is strategically located relative to Iran — outweighed a desire for political reform.
To quote Kelly McEvers from her rich and insightful story on negotiations between the U.S. State Department, protestors, and the relatively moderate Crown Prince for The Washington Monthly:
As tensions between the U.S. and Iran heat up over that country's nuclear program and threats to close a waterway that controls the Persian Gulf, U.S. officials say Bahrain is a good friend in a tough neighborhood-a friend the U.S. simply can not afford to lose.
Despite the crackdown, protests and violence still simmered. In an effort to appease the international community and domestic protestors, the King agreed to the formation of the BICI to investigate the events surrounding the uprising and recommend steps the government could take to relieve tensions.
The result of the commission is a 500+ page report that details the many human rights violations that occurred during the period and outlines steps the government can take to improve the country's political situation, including the relaxation of government censorship, the transfer of cases of cases from military to civilian courts, the release of medical personnel detained for helping treat protestors, the reinstatement of university students and civil employees, civil oversight of elections, greater freedom of expression, and many other moves towards basics rights in an equitable society.
The degree to which the government has actually accomplished these reforms is a point of debate between political groups, international observers, and the government itself. The government says it's accomplished many of the reforms.
But Sunnah Ahktar, a spokesperson for the London-based Bahrain Freedom Movement, disagrees. In an email to Jalopnik in January she described the reforms as incomplete.
Since the recent findings released in the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry Report, very little effort has been made on behalf of the Bahraini government or the international community to carry out the recommendations suggested by Professor M. Cherif Bassiouni and his team. The Commission has made recommendations with regard to the use of force, arrest, treatment of persons in custody, detention and prosecution in connection with the freedom of expression, assembly and association. However since the release of the report none of the above recommendations or any others for that matter have been implemented and there has been a sharp increase in unrest amongst the people of Bahrain.
The unrest Ahktar mentions then continues to today. Nabeel Rajab, the informal leader of the revolution (there is no single opposition group nor a single leader and the many of the country's youth, while active in demonstrations, don't appear to align completely with Rajab's Al Wefaq), was beaten up in January and allegedly arrested on March 31st.
A 22-year-old protestor was shot two weeks ago, despite claims by security forces that they're limiting their response to non-violent forms of intervention.
The Bahrain Spin Machine
All of this stands in contrast to the relatively cheery assessment from David Cracknell, the former Political Editor of The Sunday Times and current PR consultant for the Government of Bahrain. His company, Big Tent Communications, is one of many hired either directly or through other companies by the Bahraini government to "correct inaccurate reporting" on the situation. Other media consultants hired by Bahraini include former Howard Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi and Washington, D.C. PR firm Sanitas International.
In a story in The Times (Subscription Required) that ran this weekend, Hugh Tomlinson says the paper has learned the country has spent "millions of pounds in an attempt to launder its international reputation" since the uprising. From the report:
Shia-led protests demanding democratic reforms from the Sunni ruling family began on February 14 last year. Since then Bahrain has signed new deals with at least ten public relations companies, almost all based in London or Washington. Chief among them is Qorvis, the Washington company hired by Saudi Arabia to salvage that kingdom's reputation abroad after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Bahrain recruited Qorvis at a rate of $40,000 (£25,000) a month plus expenses. Matt Lauer, a former US State Department official who fronts the Bahrain contract, kept up a steady stream of releases on PR Newswire underlining the kingdom's long-standing friendship with the US.
Cracknell's first email to me came on January 11th, completely unsolicited and "on background" in a chummy tone of one journalist talking to another — despite being a consultant paid for by the government. Here's what he had to say:
His assessment of the situation was that Bahrain is overwhelmingly peaceful, that scuffles are on par with the rioting in London, and wants journalists to more thoroughly question reports that opposition leaders like Nabeel Rajab are fabricating the tales of abuse that end up in the Western press. Here's part of the email below, though you can few the full one (as well as another email quoted) in the gallery included in this piece.
Email From David Cracknell — January 2012
I wanted to reassure you that the grand prix in April will go ahead as planned and there is not nearly as much trouble in the country and the opposition PR machine would have the world believe. Yes, there are few nightly scuffles/attempts by a few vandals to cause trouble with the police, (just as rioters did in London last summer) but if you came to Bahrain yourself you would see that 99 per cent of the time it is safe and peaceful
The e-mails sent to me — and other motoring journalists — are filled with statements attempting to delegitimize reports of torture and protests that attempt to paint Bahrain as safe. At the same time, Cracknell highlights what he describes as attacks on police. Reading his emails it's as if there are two Bahrains that exist simultaneously; one filled with violent, evil anti-government protestors who rage against the police and another that's mostly peaceful.
Contrast the above statement to this one just two weeks later:
Email From David Cracknell — January 2012
An official at the Ministry of Interior (MOI) confirmed that Public Security forces faced extensive violent attacks across the Kingdom yesterday (24 January). By 10:00 PM there were reports of at least 41 significant injuries among police, with two of them requiring critical care at the Bahrain Defense Force (BDF) Hospital, including one with severe burns.
Police were met by masked and armed men and women, as well as children in some cases. The worst clashes were centered in Duraz, Sanabis, Dair and Al-Ekr, with attackers hurling metal rods, rocks, bottles and petrol bombs directly at the riot police. The nature of the attacks reflected a serious escalation in the violent tactics of groups and individuals supporting the political opposition.
The opposition we spoke with disagreed with his assessments, as does Amnesty International's representative for the region. Said Boumedouha, an Amnesty Researcher who has worked in Bahrain, says the situation is far from stable as the government portrays it.
"The way the police and the anti-riot police are dealing within protestors still hasn't really changed much," Boumedouha told Jalopnik earlier this year. "They're still using tear gas… inside of homes, which is not allowed under international law. We continue to receive reports of torture and ill-treatment, especially during protests."
Boumedouha believes that, while some steps have been taken towards fulfilling the recommendations of the BICI, the government is spending more effort hiring PR professionals like Cracknell than enacting meaningful reform. He also thinks the government wants the race as a way of demonstrating to the world that Bahrain isn't like Egypt or Libya, where Western influence and direct intervention helped end the ruling regimes.
"I think obviously the government desperately wants the race to go ahead," says Boeumedouha. "Last year it tried very very hard to organize it again later in the year and they know the protests have effected the economy very badly."
Bahrain's PR push for the race is obvious in its actions over the past four months, including inviting former drivers — like Damon Hill — to endorse the Grand Prix. Or a piece quoting Michael Schumacher in in The Telegraph trying to quell fears.
All this PR may actually work. Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone says he "has no doubts" about a race in Bahrain and blames the media for making up stories about violence in the country.
"The good thing about Bahrain is it seems more democratic there than most places," Ecclestone told the BBC. "People are allowed to speak when they want, they can protest if they want to."
Not really. There's actually a law on the books that requires any assembly of more than six people for the purposes of protesting to have prior approval form the government, according to Amnesty International.
Amnesty, for their part, haven't explicitly called for a cancellation of the race but have said that NGOs and governments should use attention brought by the race to continue to push for meaningful reforms.
In a column for The Guardian with John Lubbock, Rajab says the race shouldn't go on, writing "It is simply shocking that Britain and the US continue to support such a repressive regime and that Formula One is even considering holding the Bahrain race at the current time."
There's no easy way to gauge general public reaction, but youth groups protesting the race were met with tear gas earlier this week.
Public pressure has mounted in the last week, with F1 former champ Damon Hill — formerly cheering the Kingdom in a government press release — now stating that "the pain, anger and tension in Bahrain" needs to be considered before continuing with the race.
A Change Of Heart?
After weeks of communicating on this story with Cracknell, he approached me on Sunday to tell me that he was no longer going to work for the Bahraini government as soon as the race was over and sent me the following statement:
"I worked for the Government of Bahrain because I believe in the progressive agenda of the King and Crown Prince.
Bringing in human rights experts to do a thorough independent investigation – and that independence has never been seriously questioned – was a brave and unique initiative. They have tried to implement all 26 recommendations and that is laudable. Other countries in the region don't even allow democratic protest; this Government does.
I was never asked simply to spin the Government out of trouble. I was employed to give them constructive advice on presenting their reform agenda to the widest possible audience. As a senior journalist who has worked for several respected titles, I was invited by Bahrain to give them a hard-edged international perspective on its reputation. I always say that good PR comes from doing the right thing; and by and large they took that advice.
I just hope, as in Northern Ireland, people in Bahrain can come together and put their differences aside.
I worked for a Government that believes in democracy; not theocracy. I hope the former prevails."
Cracknell is but one small cog in a machine whose job it is to turn the critical press towards a perspective the government finds more palpable. His decision not to renew this account probably won't change much. With all the money Bahrain is spending, there are others doing the same job. Someone else likely will replace him.
Photo Credit: Hasan Jamali/AP, John Moore/Getty Images