Social Media Fame Shields Dissidents, Until It Doesn’t

The detention of two activists in Bahrain and Pakistan illustrates the limited power of social media campaigns to protect dissidents.

Bahraini human rights activist Zainab al-Khawaja, sister of jailed prominent rights activist Maryam al-Khawaja, sits at a cafe near the Bahrain court building after she was barred by authorities from attending the hearing, in the capital Manama on September 6, 2014. A Bahrain court ruled that Maryam al-Khawaja be kept behind bars for an extra 10 days despite a UN call for her release, her lawyer said. AFP PHOTO/MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH        (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images)
Bahraini human rights activist Zainab al-Khawaja, sister of jailed prominent rights activist Maryam al-Khawaja, sits at a cafe near the Bahrain court building after she was barred by authorities from attending the hearing, in the capital Manama on September 6, 2014. A Bahrain court ruled that Maryam al-Khawaja be kept behind bars for an extra 10 days despite a UN call for her release, her lawyer said. AFP PHOTO/MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images) Photo: Mohammed al-Shaikh/AFP/Getty Images

The first time I spoke with Zainab al-Khawaja, in a Skype video conversation in late 2011, the Bahraini dissident explained to me that the popularity of her @angryarabiya Twitter feed — which she used to chart the violent suppression of Bahrain’s Arab Spring uprising that year — seemed to have given her a measure of protection from the authorities.

I asked why she had not been immediately arrested at a protest the week before, when she stood defiantly in front of the riot police firing tear gas at other pro-democracy protesters — an image of defiance that went viral and embarrassed the Persian Gulf monarchy, which hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Khawaja replied that she had overheard officers being instructed not to detain or beat her. “One officer kept telling the police, ‘Not this one,'” she recalled.

Khawaja was detained and briefly interrogated by a female police officer later that day, before being released. “I think the reason is that I am active, I am known, in the country and internationally, not to a big extent, but I have a big following on Twitter.”

“I wish that every Bahraini was protected the way I am,” she added. “Just because I’ve been speaking out on Twitter and other places doesn’t mean I have have more rights.”

Two weeks later, whatever protection Khawaja’s social media fame might have earned her seemed to evaporate, as she was dragged away and punched on camera by police officers breaking up a small sit-in at a traffic circle outside a mall in the capital, Manama. The incident was captured in a video clip viewed hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube, and witnessed by reporters from the New York Times. For good measure, the police also beat the activist who recorded the incident on video and fired tear gas at witnesses in a coffee shop across the street who were not involved in the protest.

Since then, Khawaja — the daughter of the jailed founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja — has been in and out of prison. Her crimes, defined as such by Bahrain’s ruling family, include expressing her opinion about their crackdown on dissent by ripping up a photograph of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa — an act she repeated in court while on trial for doing so at a protest.

After an appeals court confirmed that conviction last October, and sentenced her to a year in jail for insulting the king, she was imprisoned in March and chose to bring her infant son with her.

The dissident’s sister, Maryam, a human rights activist who also uses Twitter to call for democracy and free speech in Bahrain, told my colleague Murtaza Hussain in March that it would take something more than a social media outcry, namely pressure from the U.S., to get her sister released.

It is true, however, that there is something of a feedback loop between social networks and the traditional media when it comes to which cases of injustice U.S. officials get asked about most frequently during briefings or visits to allies like Bahrain.

So on April 7, when Secretary of State John Kerry appeared in Bahrain next to Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, a member of the royal family who serves as the monarchy’s foreign minister, and made a tepid reference to the importance of human rights, David Sanger of the New York Times asked about Khawaja.

Kerry avoided comment on her case, but Bahrain’s foreign minister — who has used Twitter to scold foreign correspondents and second the thoughts of Kim Kardashian — suddenly promised that Khawaja would be released into what sounded like some form of house arrest. “She will be sent to her home and to be with her family and to be … held with her child in a better surrounding,” he said. “So she will be going home. We’re looking forward to that.”

Readers familiar with Bahrain will not be surprised to learn that Khawaja remains in prison today, five weeks later.

Maryam al-Khawaja told The Intercept on Friday that after the foreign ministry released a statement this week saying her sister would be released — citing “the possibility of negative repercussions” for her young son — Zainab “had a meeting with the head of the prison she’s in, who told her that as far as they’re concerned there is no decision for release, and that the sentencing judge agrees.” The head of the prison insisted that officials there “are not obliged to follow through on statements from the foreign ministry.”

“It seems that a more influential al-Khalifa than the foreign minister doesn’t support the release statement,” Maryam al-Khawaja observed.

In the meantime, as the social media campaign to keep Khawaja’s name on the minds of journalists and U.S. officials continues, far less attention has been paid to senior members of Bahrain’s political opposition languishing in jail who are less well-known online. Neither Kerry nor the foreign minister was asked, for instance, about Khawaja’s father, who was given a life sentence for helping to lead pro-democracy street protests in 2011, or about Ibrahim Sharif, a veteran political activist who was convicted of “inciting hatred” by calling for democracy and full civil rights for all citizens in a speech last year.

It is also striking that the international attention to Khawaja’s case, intermittent and only occasionally effective as it has been, stands in contrast to the fate of thousands of other dissidents with lower profiles on social media who are currently in detention in countries that are also allied with the U.S., like Egypt or Pakistan.

A sad and compelling example is the effort to draw attention to the disappearance of Zeenat Shehzadi, a young Pakistani journalist who documented her own life, and her country’s struggles, using Facebook and Twitter. Shehzadi also used social networking to engage in a form of activism, by helping the family of an Indian man — who went missing in Pakistan in 2012 — file a complaint against the authorities over his secret detention.

As Saba Eitizaz of the BBC’s Urdu-language news service reported this week:

Before her abduction, the 24-year-old journalist had been working on the case of Indian citizen Hamid Ansari who went missing in Pakistan in November 2012. Through social media, she managed to get in touch with Hamid’s mother in Mumbai and filed a missing person’s petition in court on her behalf.

She played an important role in encouraging a government commission on enforced disappearances to investigate his case. As a result, security agencies admitted to the commission that Hamid was in their custody.

As a young freelancer who worked for local news outlets in Lahore, Shehzadi had no national prominence in Pakistan. Kiran Nazish, a Pakistani journalist, told The Intercept by email that when reporters there “do not have international connections, they become more vulnerable. When they vanish no one reports on them and then no one ever hears from them.”

Last August, just days before Shehzadi was scheduled to testify about the Ansari case to Pakistan’s Commission for the Enquiry of Enforced Disappearances, witnesses said that two cars blocked the rickshaw she was using to get to work in the city of Lahore, and she was abducted by armed men.

Now, as Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper has reported, the same commission is working to find out which branch of the security forces took Shehzadi from the street in broad daylight, and what happened to her.

According to the commission, set up by Pakistan’s government to look for people widely suspected of having been kidnapped by branches of the security forces, more than 3,000 people have been reported missing, and there is still no information in at least 1,300 of those cases, including that of Shehzadi.

Hina Jilani, a celebrated human rights lawyer, told Dawn that Shehzadi “was working on a case openly and in courts, and if there is suspicion of her spying then the State agencies should tell the family.”

In an interview with the BBC, Jilani added, “We are convinced that this is the work of the secret government agencies, because when someone is detained by them, the police can be quite helpless, and we have seen that in this case.”

Beena Sarwar, a Pakistani journalist and blogger who has tried to draw attention to Shehzadi’s case online, noted recently that the story got little attention in Pakistan until March, when her younger brother took his own life, apparently in despair at his sister’s unknown fate.

As the Pakistani rights activist and journalist Sana Saleem reported for Global Voices, however, the BBC Urdu report did prompt at least some journalists and politicians in Pakistan to raise Shehzadi’s case on their social networks.

Matiullah Jan, a justice correspondent and television host, criticized the failure of the commission on disappearances.

Wasay Jalil of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a political party, and the columnist Tanveer Arain, also embraced the hashtag #FreeZeenat.

Join The Conversation