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Bahrain's Justice Minister Picks Fight With Newspaper Editor on Twitter

Many voting stations in the opposition areas have been mostly empty as they are boycotting the elections of Bahrain 2014. Photo by Majed Tareef. Copyright Demotix.

Many voting stations in the opposition areas have been mostly empty as they are boycotting the elections of Bahrain 2014. Photo by Majed Tareef. Copyright Demotix.

Bahrainis voted for the first time since a popular uprising on the tiny island began in 2011 and was later brutally suppressed by authorities. Turnout depends on who you ask — the government says 51.9 percent of voters went to the polls, while the opposition (which boycotted the elections) puts the figure at around 30 percent.

The difference in percentages was noted by daily newspaper Al-Wasat's editor-in-chief Mansoor Al-Jamri, who reminded readers there's more to elections than simply winning in the numbers. But his observations about freedoms sparked a war of words on Twitter with Bahrain's Minister of Justice Khalid bin Ali Al-Khalifa, a member of Bahrain's ruling Al-Khalifa royal family.

In the November 24 editorial column titled “Beyond the numbers war,” Al-Jamri wrote:

بغض النظر عن الأرقام، فإن العملية السياسية الناجحة تقاس بمؤشرات أساسية لا يمكن إغفالها، ومنها فيما إذا كانت السجون مليئة أم فارغة من معتقلين لأسباب سياسية، وفيما إذا كان المختلفون في الرأي يمارسون حياتهم بصورة عادية ولا يوجد خطر على حياتهم، وفيما إذا كان بالإمكان أن يمارس الجميع دوراً ما من دون أن يتعرض لتمييز أو مضايقة بسبب انتماءاته أو أفكاره… في ذلك الحين، فإن الأرقام تصبح مادة للتحاور بدلاً من تحولها إلى مادة للتندر أو الاحتراب.

Beyond the numbers, a political process has indicators that can't be ignored. It includes whether the prisons are full or empty of people arrested for political reasons. Whether people of a different opinions live normally without fear for their life. Whether people are free to perform their roles without being discriminated against or harassed for their opinions or affiliation. After that, numbers will be a matter of debate instead of a laughing matter or a matter of increasing strife.

The minister seemed infuriated by the article — or what it hinted at. He tweeted in response:

It's out of lunacy that a person would claim that there is a numbers war!! The war is around us and the will of the people prevented it from being on us. Remain in your virtual war and spare the people this lunacy

Al-Jamri replied to the minister:

Calm down, your excellency, an open mind makes more room for justice

Al-Jamri is the 2011 CPJ International Press Freedom Awardee and the co-founder of the paper. Another co-founder, Kareem Fakhrawi, was tortured to death in 2011.

The minister responded, proclaiming that the victory was “historic” despite the opposition's calls for boycott:

Doubting the historic victory of 22 November and framing it as a numbers war is miserable attempt. Justice isn't a matter of temper, but a heavenly message and that's enough

Only six out of 40 candidates have passed the first round of elections, which were marred by reports that the government had offered incentives including priority for employment and public services for those who ran in the elections and even an iPhone for some students who voted. The winner of the most votes so far has 4,197, about the same number as political detainees estimated by the opposition.

Al-Jamri wrote:

Your excellency, the term “numbers war” is not mine, it was in the wire news yesterday… Maybe you were too busy to review it. Thanks.

He was referring to news agency Agence France-Press (AFP), which is one of the news outlets that covered the elections. Bahrain's government has a history of denying foreign journalists a visa or entry into the country at the border.

The minister replied:

Reading what is published is a part of my job… if there's a foul term being used outside the country it's only fair that we prevent its promotion inside the country

Bahrain has also gone after home-grown journalists who have covered the uprising.

Al-Jamri pointed to the issue of freedom of opinion by tweeting in reply:

Yes, you have an opinion, which I respect and others have their opinions, which I respect as well, mutual respect is a merit

The minister didn't agree:

When judges are in charge of publishing the numbers, it's not a matter of opinion. It's an indisputable fact.

The judicial system in Bahrain had been the target of much criticism from international rights group, especially after fast-tracking hundreds of people through unjust trials in 2011. Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said, “Bahrain’s problem is not a dysfunctional justice system, but rather a highly functional injustice system.”

Al-Jamri responded to the minister:

That doesn't abolish the right to have a different opinion, even God had a debate with Satan

The minister offered a final tweet on the matter:

God didn't hold a debate with Satan!!! And this is not our topic!!! And this metaphor is not acceptable… and I'll stop at this point

Bahrain's elections took place in a climate of fear, where political dissent is a crime, freedom of expression is poor and the state sponsors an unspoken policy of sectarianism. The question is, what value does a vote have if it has all that baggage?

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