Blackberries and Bahrainis

How Bahrain’s media landscape was changed by one man, and 11 Blackberries.

The article is a version of a paper published in Medium, the journal of mediology, summer 2011.

Yousef Tuqan Tuqan
CEO, Flip Media

Stanley Moss

The Journal of the Medinge Group, vol. 5, no. 1, 2011

‘You only know that you have succeeded as a blogger when they put you in jail.’—Egyptian joke, circa 2010

ENDLESSLY RESOURCEFUL, humans long to transmit information even when extraneous conditions seem to conspire to thwart them. Take, for example, the case of Muhannad, a Bahraini journalist and news aggregator who in 2009 followed his entrepreneurial instincts and set up a daily news feed called Breaking News, via Blackberry Messenger. It mattered not that the devices can hold only a maximum of 2,000 contacts. Once he had attracted over 13,000 subscribers registered to receive his daily updates, including a 6 a.m. round-up of newspaper headlines, Muhannad had taken to carrying multiple devices with him, becoming much of a local celebrity, armed with his armada of Blackberries wherever he went.
   One morning in April 2010, subscribers to Muhannad’s daily news service received a message stating, ‘I am sorry about the inconvenience, but as you do know, it is well beyond my capabilities.’ The message, signed Muhannad Sulaiman Al Noaimi, continued, ‘I will suspend the service in compliance with the law, but it will be only for a few days until I complete the procedures to get the license. I will not give up this right to freedom of providing information.’
   In the years leading up to the Arab spring of 2011, Middle Eastern nations had experienced an unprecedented wave of change in how citizens were able to access media, and how governments struggled to contain it. For Arab citizens in the 1980s, access to media was restricted to terrestrial government-owned TV and radio broadcasters, local newspapers and a trickling of international newspapers and magazines, which had objectionable content either blacked out or ripped from the magazines. In Kuwait during that era, every story relating to Israel in a foreign publication was stamped with the message ‘Know your enemy.’
   Subsequently, the proliferation of satellite television, the internet and mobile phones created untold opportunities for Arab citizens to access, consume and produce media and content on their own terms. And their governments responded in the only way they know how: by blocking access wherever possible. The black marker of the 1980s was replaced with proxies that block Internet access, and legislation which criminalizes unlicensed broadcasting.
   A March 2010 report by the organization Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) entitled ‘Enemies of the Internet’ listed the ‘worst violators of freedom of expression on the Net’. Five of the twelve countries listed were Middle Eastern: Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Tunisia.
Since that report was published, two of the five (Egypt and Tunisia) have seen the overthrow of their government by popular protests, another two (Saudi Arabia and Iran) have seen widespread protests in the streets, and Syria has a revolution still in progress.
   Bahrain, meanwhile, was listed by RSF as ‘Under surveillance’ due to its practice of internet filtering, the surveillance of bloggers, and a requirement that all websites hosted in the country or abroad featuring information about the kingdom’s business, arts, religion, or politics be registered with the Ministry of Culture and Information.
   At the time of its shutdown by the Ministry in April 2011, Breaking News’ formidable following of 13,000 Blackberry Messenger subscribers was all the more significant, given the immediacy of the news and the fact that its circulation exceeded many of Bahrain’s largest daily newspapers. Bahrain’s Ministry of Culture and Information had announced a ban on the sharing of news via Blackberry citing the ‘impact that such news create among the public by causing chaos and confusion, especially since the source is individuals and agencies which have failed to obtain official permission by the ministry.’
   After a petition by Muhannad in May 2010, his Breaking News Blackberry service was restored, renamed Muhannad’s News. This indicated to its subscribers that it was not an official news source. By September 2010, Muhannad’s News—now broadcasting from 16 Blackberries—had attracted 32,000 subscribers. That was the point when his service was permanently shut down, along with his Breaking News website, which by then attracted over 122,000 visitors per month.
   ‘I have … thousands of subscribers who want to stay posted on latest news and developments in the kingdom,’ Muhannad stated. ‘I started this group in December last year and since then it has grown at a fast pace, [but] we respect Bahraini laws and regulations and will stop providing our free services for our Blackberry group and website subscribers until further notice.’
   While the ban in September may have spelled the end of his Blackberry news service, it has not been the end of Muhannad’s passion for journalism. On February 24, 2011, the Bahrain News Agency launched its own new website. At the launch, the BNA’s newly-appointed Director stated, ‘the website will be more interactive as it is connected to Facebook, Twitter and (has) special applications for Blackberry, iPhone and iPad.’
   The name of its newly appointed Director was Muhannad Sulaiman Al Noaimi.

Yousef Tuqan TuqanBlackberries and Bahrainis

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