One morning in April 2010, subscribers to a daily news service in Bahrain received the message, "I am sorry about the inconvenience, but as you do know, it is well beyond my capabilities." The message was sent by Muhannad Sulaiman Al Noaimi, a journalist whose “Breaking News” service had over 13,000 subscribers who had registered to receive his daily updates, including a 6am roundup of newspaper headlines, via BlackBerry Messenger.
He 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.”
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 were (un)able to control 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 that had objectionable content either “blacked out” or ripped from the magazines. In Kuwait at the time, every story related to Israel in a foreign publication was stamped with the message “Know your enemy.”
However, since then, the proliferation of satellite television, the Internet and mobile phones have created untold opportunities for Arab citizens to access, consume and produce media and content on their own terms. And their governments have responded in the only way they know how: by blocking access wherever possible. The black marker of the 1980’s was replaced with proxies that block Internet access and legislation that criminalizes unlicensed broadcasting.
In a March 2010 report by the organizations Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) entitled ‘Enemies of The Internet’ that listed the “worst violators of freedom of expression on the Net”, 5 of the 12 countries listed were Middle Eastern: Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Tunisia. Since that report was published, 2 of the 5 (Egypt and Tunisia) have seen the overthrow of their government by popular protests, another 2 (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 Internet websites hosted in the country or abroad featuring information about the kingdom’s business, arts, religion, or politics must be registered with the Ministry of Culture and Information.
At the time of its shutdown by the Ministry in April 2011, “Breaking News” had a formidable following of 13,000 BlackBerry Messenger subscribers, which is made even more significant given the immediacy of the news and the fact that its “circulation” exceeded many of Bahrain largest daily newspapers. Bahrain’s Ministry of Culture and Information had announced a ban on the sharing of news via BlackBerry due to 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.”
Following a petition by Muhannad in May 2010, his “Breaking News” BlackBerry service was restored after being renamed to “Muhannad’s News” in order for its subscribers to know that it was not an official news source. Following its restoration, Muhannad’s subscriber base continued to grow, as did the number of BlackBerries in his pockets. Since the devices can hold a maximum of 2,000 contacts, Muhannad became a local celebrity; clutching handfuls of BlackBerries everywhere he went, in order to update the volume of subscribers.
His service had reached a following of 32,000 subscribers in September 2010, when his service was permanently shut down, along with his “Breaking News” website, which attracted over 122,000 visitors per month.
“I have 16 BlackBerrys and thousands of subscribers who want to stay posted on latest news and developments in the kingdom,' he said, “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 (the website has since been restored), it has not been the end of Muhannad’s passion for journalism.
On February 24, 2011, the Bahrain News Agency launched its 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? Muhannad Sulaiman Al Noaimi.