Monday, December 17, 2012

Bahrain's PR Trap

New York Times journalist Nick Kristof was denied entry into Bahrain today. As he tweeted, “I’m at #Bahrain airport, and the government is denying me entry. Our ally is terrified of human rights reporting.”

His rejection should come as no surprise. He’s been on the government’s bad side ever since reporting from Pearl Roundabout during the February 14th uprising. While I’ve been told (but was unable to confirm) he has been granted two media visas since then, he has previously been denied entry. And he’s in good company of a long list of journalists, academics, and human rights groups that has been turned away these past two years. Just this week, a member of the European Parliament was also denied entry.

In response to Kristof’s rejection, Brian Dooley of Human Rights First rhetorically asked what Bahrain has to hide. The answer is, actually, not much. The ongoing human rights violations in Bahrain are well known thanks to the hard and dangerous work of local activists. Denying Kristof a visa won’t cover up these violations – nor will it stop him from writing an article denouncing them. While admittedly not ideal, Kristof does not need to enter Bahrain to write about it – he has the help of activists and Skype.

In that sense, Kristof’s critics are right that his “story is set” whether he enters Bahrain or not. He will write something negative about the Bahraini government regardless. But is that his fault or the fault of the government for failing its responsibilities towards its citizens? As a recent POMED report concluded, the government has failed to fully implement almost 90% of the recommendations set forth by the Bassiouni commission – recommendations the King himself endorsed as necessary to reduce human rights violations.

This raises the question: if Kristof will write something negative regardless, why even bother denying him entry? By denying him entry, the government not only helps Kristof prove his case, it also causes an unnecessary media storm around his denial.  In only two hours, his original tweet announcing his denial of entry has already garnered 656 retweets and 62 favorites. He has since been tweeting up a storm and all his followers along with him.

In fact, this might be what Kristof wanted all along. In response to Laura Seay’s tweet “No way @NickKristof didn’t know he’d be denied entry to Bahrain. So why waste money & effort trying?,” Dan Drezner simply replied, “#allaboutthetweets.” Getting denied a visa is not the worst thing in the world for Kristof. It’s a platform. Take for example the reaction of PedroPizano from the Human Rights Foundation: “@NickKristof was just denied entry to #Bahrain. He’s at the airport there and making a pest out of himself. Awesome!” The government walked right into the PR trap.

Since the uprising, the government has taken an aggressive three-pronged PR approach: limit access to critical voices, hire Western PR firms, and hold high profile events to make Bahrain look “normal.” Each prong has failed. Critical voices like Kristof’s are still being heard, especially with the help of local activists. The PR firms have been outed and are failing to make a dent. And major events like F1 and Kim Kardashian’s recent trip have backfired by casting unnecessary attention on an island that the media would otherwise largely ignore.

Instead of fighting negative PR tooth and nail, the government would be better off just taking its licks. Keep a low profile. The international community’s default setting is to ignore you – so don’t draw unnecessary attention to yourself. Let Kristof in and don’t let him become the story. Hire PR firms, but don’t have them write articles beyond credulity. Hold major events, but let them speak for themselves instead of publicly bragging about how they prove Bahrain’s troubles have passed.

Of course, there’s only one real and lasting way the Bahraini government can improve its image. It must improve its product. Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to happen for the same reason my colleague Reza and I wrote about back in May: a brutal mix of street violence, distrust, and sectarianism have combined to disempower moderates across Bahrain’s political spectrum.

In the case of the government, the moderates who are most likely to curb human rights abuses and seek necessary reform are exactly those who care most about Bahrain’s public image. Unfortunately, with each failed attempt to improve that image, the hardliners gain even more influence. And with that influence, they drag Bahrain further down the cycle of violence, distrust and sectarianism that further damages Bahrain’s image. Like a Chinese finger trap, the more the moderates in the government struggle, the worse their PR predicament becomes. Relax your fingers, and the PR trap will relax with you.


AhmedBRN said...

Nick Kristof is the most childish reporter I've ever seen. Not only is he BSing about the "human rights abuses" towards the "peaceful protesters", but he's been continuingly doing so for the past two years! Nick, you should first apoplogize to us in Bahrain, you are really getting in on our nerves. He is supporting "protesters" who are lead by Iran's Ayatollah and he calls them PEACEFUL?? They KILL people, they run over unarmed policemen, they make bombs and kill innocent civilians and expats, they are ALL only of one sect, and they kidnap and stab innocents, they block roads with burning tires, the list goes on! AND HE CALLS THEM INNOCENT? The World's gone mad. And to think he has TWO pulitzer awards? Fail.

Linda said...

You are mistaking the actions of a few youth who are violent, with thousands who are not. You need to get a sense of realism and balance. The deaths caused by police and the regime by teargas, birdshot and torture is far far greater than the deaths of police. Your protestations fly in the face of evidence, which is seen the world over. Human rights abuses were accepted by the King, it seems you are now going against your own king's opinion! Dangerous, surely? Why were the UN in Bahrain for 6 days at the start of December? To see for themselves the human rights abuses. You do need to educate yourself about human rights. You have 30, just by being born a human being. The regime will not allow you most of your natural, free born human rights. And you should be angry about that. 

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