Faisal Hayyat, a prominent blogger and sports journalist, was sentenced on November 29 by a Bahraini court to 3 months imprisonment for ‘insulting a sect and a religious figure’ on Twitter. Hayyat was arrested on October 9, a few days after posting tweets critical to the Bahraini government. On his tweets Hayyat commented on events from early Islamic history. The conviction was based on article 209 of the Bahraini Criminal Code, which criminalizes defamation of religion and carries a punishment of up to one year in prison.
According to Reporters Without Borders, previous to his arrest Hayyat published an open letter to Bahraini authorities where he ‘referred to the conditions in which he was detained in 2011 and criticized governmental corruption and free speech violations’. In his letter, Hayyat said:
‘I write this and I know it may cost me my freedom’.
Hayyat is a sports journalist on TV and on local Bahraini newspapers, such as Alalam, Albilad and Akhbar Al Khaleej. The blogger manages an active Twitter account with nearly 42,000 followers since 2011. Since 2013, he hosts a satirical channel on YouTube where he posts a weekly satirical broadcast named “Snap Hayyat”, which focuses on political and social issues.
Hayyat was previously arrested in April 2011 during the Bahraini uprising protests, as part of the Arab Spring. He was held behind bars for 84 days, during which he claimed to have been subjected to physical and psychological torture.
Near Hayyat’s conviction, 45 NGOs published a joint letter directed to the King of Bahrain, requesting the immediate and unconditional release of Hayyat, Nabeel Rajab and all internet users arrested and imprisoned in Bahrain for exercising their right to freedom of expression:
‘The government’s repeated harassment of Faisal and other online activists demonstrate the ongoing criminalization of free expression in Bahrain… The government’s decision to prosecute him infringes both his freedom of expression and religion’
Bahrain still holds Nabeel Rajab behind bars over criticising Saudi involvement in Yemen on Twitter. Rajab, a 51-year-old prominent Bahraini opposition leader and the president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, was charged in June 2016 with ‘insulting a statutory body’ and ‘spreading rumours during wartime’. If convicted, he is facing up to 15 years in prison under Bahrain’s penal code. In November, following 3 months of solitary confinement, Rajabe was taken to hospital from prison due to heart problems.
According to the Freedom House’s 2016 Freedom of the Net report, Bahrain is marked as ‘Not Free’. Social media platforms are being blocked, political and social content is being censored and bloggers are being arrested for expressing their opinions online. The press freedom in the state is also marked as not free. All broadcast and newspaper companies are owned by the government and vaguely worded legislation encourages self-censorship. A wide range of opposition websites are officially blocked. This includes any organisation that could cover potential protests as live events.