BBC World Service radio coverage of the Bahrain-Israel agreement

The announcement of normalisation of relations between Israel and Bahrain on September 11th prompted a sudden interest on the part of some journalists in the topic of human rights in that Gulf state.

Shany Mor commented on that and additional trends evident since the announcement of the Abraham Accords:

“Equally unserious is the bellyaching about the nondemocratic nature of the regimes in Bahrain and the UAE. This is supposed to indicate a “preference” on Israel’s part for despotic Arab regimes (as opposed to which?) or even just an agreement of one illiberal state with two others. The latter formulation has the benefit not only mischaracterizing Israeli democracy as something even comparable to absolute monarchies with non-citizen majorities, but also making Israel somehow responsible for the lack of democracy in the Arab world.

This charge would be plausible if there were democratic states in the Arab world extending a hand of peace to Israel only to be met with rejection.  Or if, say, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates had no normal relations with other democracies besides Israel.

But, of course, both countries have normal diplomatic relations with nearly every other state in the world, including all of the world’s most advanced democracies, without any of them being tainted by it.

In the diplomatic Calvinball which Israel has to play, having normal relations with a non-democratic regime now makes you complicit in its domestic policies.  That wasn’t the rule one month ago, but it is now, and if you don’t understand you just aren’t a very sophisticated observer of global events.”

The BBC’s contributions to that media trend were aired on BBC World Service radio. In the September 11th evening edition of the ‘Newshour’ programme listeners heard an item (from 14:06 here) introduced by presenter Julian Marshall thus: [emphasis in italics in the original]

Marshall: “Not just one but two Arab states will be at a signing ceremony next week at the White House, making their peace with Israel. As widely expected, Bahrain has followed the decision last month by the United Arab Emirates to normalise relations with Israel. It was President Trump who tweeted the news, describing the Bahraini move as another historic breakthrough. And indeed it does break with the history of Arab states – Jordan and Egypt aside – refusing to establish ties with Israel until there’s a settlement of the Palestinian issue. The Bahraini king has however called for a just and lasting peace based on the two-state solution in telephone calls with Mr Trump. The BBC’s Tom Bateman is in Jerusalem. I spoke to him earlier and put it to him that the Israeli government must be pleased about this.”

The report from Tom Bateman likewise promoted Palestinian talking points.

Bateman: “But what this does politically in terms of the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians – and we heard a lot of condemnation, castigation, by the Palestinian leadership after the Emirati deal – there’s now even more of that after the Bahraini deal. The Palestinians have called this a betrayal. They say it is dangerous and they call this a torpedoing of the Arab peace initiative and that was the Saudi-led initiative that was always meant to create s sort of sense of Arab solidarity; that there wouldn’t be a normalisation of relations between the Arab states and Israel until the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had been resolved, until there was Palestinian statehood.”

Interestingly, although the BBC has vigorously promoted that talking point since news first broke last month of the agreement between Israel and the UAE, its audiences have yet to hear any serious explanation of what has changed since that 2002 Saudi initiative was drafted and why some Arab states have since changed their position.

The item continued with an interview with Adam Ereli – introduced by Marshall as “the former United States ambassador to Bahrain” but without any mention of his more recent lobbying activities – after which listeners heard the following:

20:43 Marshall: “Well we’ve been trying for the past few hours to get an interview with a representative of the Bahraini government but to no avail. Bahrain is a Gulf monarchy whose ruling al Khalifa family are Sunni Muslims. The country’s majority Shia Muslim population led protests during the Arab uprising of 2011. They were brutally suppressed by troops from Saudi Arabis and the United Arab Emirates. Maryam al Khawaja is a human rights defender and a member of the Shiite Muslim majority. I asked her what she thought of this normalisation of relations between Bahrain and Israel.”

Al Khawaja: “It’s not news that has been well received in Bahrain. We’ve already seen a reaction on Twitter by a number of Bahrainis saying that they reject and refuse this deal and I think…”

Marshall: “So sorry, could I just interrupt. You are saying that despite the fact that the government has done this, there is not popular support for this move in Bahrain.”

Al Khawaja: “Oh of course not. I mean the Bahraini people for, you know, as long as…if you look back throughout the entire history of the setting up of the Israeli state, the Bahraini people have always been very publicly in support of the Palestinian people and we’re seeing this reaction against the deal. I think a lot of the outrage is because the people of Bahrain were not expecting the Bahraini regime to go to the point of making this deal against the will of the Bahraini people. The former speaker was talking about how this was for the benefit of the Bahraini people. I want to stress here that nothing about this deal has anything to do about the well-being or the protection of the Bahraini or the Palestinian people. The Bahraini people are not a free people. Bahrain is not a free country. People don’t have the right to have opinions or to express those opinions and we’ve seen time and time again people prosecuted, tortured, imprisoned for expressing their opinions whether on Twitter or otherwise. And so I think, you know, it’s very obvious that this is a decision made by the government and it has nothing to do with the Bahraini people.”

Marshall: “That was Maryam al Khawaja from the Bahraini Muslim Shiite majority speaking to us earlier from Denmark.”

So while BBC audiences did not hear any comment on the story from representatives of either the Bahraini or Israeli governments, they did get an obviously partisan opposition view from a “human rights defender” who does not currently reside in Bahrain.  

An edited version of that interview with al Khawaja were also aired in one of the September 12th editions of the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Weekend’. Presenter Pascale Harter used a similar introduction (from 00:42 here) to the one given by Marshall the previous evening.

Harter: “But we start today in Bahrain in what might be described as a win for the current US administration ahead of November’s presidential election, two Arab states will be at a signing ceremony next week at the White House making their peace with Israel. As widely expected, Bahrain has followed the decision of the United Arab Emirates to normalise relations with Israel. It was President Trump who Tweeted the news, describing the Bahraini move as another historic breakthrough. And indeed it does break with the history of Arab states – Jordan and Egypt aside – refusing to establish ties with Israel until there is a settlement of the Palestinian issue. The Bahraini king said that this was a new era of peace, however not everyone welcomed the deal. Maryam al Khawaja is a member of Bahrain’s Shiite Muslim majority. She spoke to the BBC from Denmark.”

Al Khawaja: “I think a lot of the outrage is because the people of Bahrain were not expecting the Bahraini regime to go to the point of making this deal against the will of the Bahraini people. The former speaker was talking about how this was for the benefit of the Bahraini people. Nothing about this deal has anything to do about the well-being or the protection of the Bahraini or the Palestinian people. The Bahraini people are not a free people. Bahrain is not a free country. People don’t have the right to have opinions or to express those opinions. It’s very obvious that this is a decision made by the government and it has nothing to do with the Bahraini people.”

Listeners to this programme did at least get to hear an alternative view from Ebrahim Nonoo, a member of Bahrain’s small Jewish community which was confusingly described by Harter as “indigenous” despite its 19th century origins. One of Harter’s questions was particularly interesting:

Harter: “What if the Shiite youth doesn’t support this deal and you see more demonstrations on the streets, perhaps stoked or encouraged by your neighbour Iran?”

That phrasing implies that the BBC is in fact more aware of the broader background to the topic of dissenting voices in Bahrain than its coverage clarified to audiences worldwide.

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