As protesters take to the streets, the regime is using government-run television to hit back with sectarian propaganda
MANAMA, Bahrain -- Bahrain TV blares from most corners of this island Kingdom -- in malls, restaurants, living rooms. In a hotel bar, I'm watching footage of the country's famous Pearl Square roundabout, the anti-government opposition's main gathering point, being torn to the ground, its famous white statue -- six columns representing the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council, holding up a giant pearl -- collapsing into a pile of rubble. An official from opposition party al-Wefaq is with me, drinking a beer. When the announcer calls the tear-down the "development of the GCC roundabout," my bar mate rolls his eyes. "Bahrain TV," he says. "They say what they say."
As King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa's Sunni regime lays siege to the remains of what was once a promising anti-government movement, throwing nearly all of the country's prominent dissidents into police custody and raining tear gas and rubber bullets on poor Shi'a villages, it has largely shut out international media, refusing to extend or grant visas and, two weeks ago, forcibly detaining a CNN crew outside the beleaguered Shi'a neighborhood of Bani Jamrah.
The lack of foreign press coverage means a virtual monopoly on airwaves for state-run BTV. It has become a symbol of the Sunni regime's ongoing propaganda campaign against Shi'ites, the 70 percent majority they claim are responsible for the entirety of the political and economic unrest that has swept this country since police first fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and pellets at peaceful demonstrators in the early hours of February 14.
After weeks of state media propaganda, the sectarian divide between Sunnis and Shi'a is at an all-time high.
"The narrative the government wants to put across, which is powerful, is that this is a sectarian conflict, different than what happened in Egypt and Tunisia. And the vehicle it chose to do that with is BTV, because it's the only thing it had in its arsenal," said Ali Al-Saffar, Middle East economist at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London. "It got across the story the government wanted it to get across, which is to frame the protest movement as being solely Shi'a -- which we knew it wasn't -- as violent, and to make the Sunna minority feel like if the protesters got what they wanted, the Sunni community would be threatened."
Stories of the deceptive tactics used by BTV crews run rampant in Manama. Protesters repeatedly told me they watched crews -- usually wearing balaclava masks, to avoid identification -- plant knives and guns at protest sites, then turn on the cameras to film the weapons and protesters suggestively side-by-side. (During my time in the country, I never saw one protester wielding a weapon.) Staffers at Salmaniya Hospital, which fell under military control after dozens of Saudi Arabian tanks rolled into the country on March 13, said they were being held hostage in the emergency wing, beaten and sent back inside if they tried to leave. But if you watched BTV, you'd have seen a different picture -- a happy doctor walking unscathed through the doors of the ER to freedom. Nurses told me he was beaten once the cameras were turned off, then sent back inside.
The narrative that BTV keeps driving is one in which Sunnis should fear the mostly Shi'ite protesters, with an implicit warning -- if they win, you are in danger. And after weeks of state media propaganda, the sectarian divide between Sunnis and Shi'a is at an all-time high, with one Sunni describing his Shi'a neighbors as "cockroaches" that "must be put down." On more than one occasion, officials from al-Wefaq worried about similarities between BTV's rhetoric and that of the Hutu radio stations that rallied Rwandan Hutus to slaughter their Tutsi brethren 17 years ago.