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Cablegate: Ngos Laud Internet Freedom Speech; Alec Ross


DE RUEHMK #0052/01 0281346
P 281346Z JAN 10

C O N F I D E N T I A L MANAMA 000052



E.O. 12958: DECL: 01/28/2020
ENGAGES GOB ON KNOWLEDGE-BASED DEVELOPMENT REF: A. STATE 4203 B. 09 MANAMA 49 Classified By: Ambassador Adam Ereli for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).

1.(C) Summary: Bahraini civil society representatives expressed strong support for the Secretary's January 21 internet freedom speech, during an informal roundtable organized by emboffs January 24. They also criticized the GOB's restrictions on a number of websites linked to Shia opposition groups and activists. Separately, the Secretary's Senior Advisor for Innovation, Alec Ross, met January 26 with the Minister for Cabinet Affairs -- known for his authoritarian tendencies, including, NGOs allege, a proclivity to censor the internet -- to discuss the role of technology in fostering a knowledge-based economy. The Minister enthusiastically touted the GOB's e-government initiative and requested USG assistance in bringing more U.S. technology firms to Bahrain. End comment.

2.(SBU) Four leading Bahraini civil society representatives were wholly supportive of the Secretary's January 21 internet freedom speech (ref A), during an informal roundtable discussion organized by emboffs January 24. The participants said the GOB continues to block dozens, if not hundreds, of websites in Bahrain (ref B), many of which are run by activists advocating for increased rights for the country,s Shia majority. CENSORSHIP AND U.S. FIRMS = = = = = = = = = = = = =

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3.(SBU) The attendees said that several U.S. firms' technologies were used by the GOB to block websites, and expressed a desire for the USG to lean on such firms not to do business with a government that undermines internet freedom of expression; the participants cited the Secretary,s statement that the "private sector has a shared responsibility to help safeguard free expression."

4.(SBU) Participants agreed that the GOB is taking positive steps to streamline certain citizen services via its e-government initiative (see below). They said the next step should be to facilitate citizens' ability to access laws, regulations government expenditures, court documents, and other information via the internet. Participants noted that online users, especially youth, are increasingly savvy when it comes to using alternative technologies to circumvent official censorship of the web. BLOGGERS QUESTIONED = = = = = = = = = =

5.(C) The civil society representatives all lamented the GOB's decision to use censorship to control online political activism, noting that approximately 15 Bahraini bloggers have been detained for questioning by the Bahraini authorities in recent years. (Note: Post understands that, in most cases, the accused were held for no more than a few hours or days. End note). They said this was a high number of arrests given Bahrain's population of one million people, and asked why the Secretary did not single out Bahrain in her speech when she had singled out other close allies like Egypt.

6.(C) The attendees claimed that stymieing political freedom of expression was only part of the GOB's rationale for blocking websites; they asserted that squelching allegations of official corruption was a major factor in the GOB's policy. (Note: Media sources indicate that local newspapers routinely exercise self-censorship when reporting on corruption stories, such is the pressure from elements in the GOB. At the same time however, corruption stories now appear routinely in Bahraini newspapers whereas such stories were rare until a few years ago. End Note).

7.(C) When previously asked about the blocking of websites, Undersecretary of Culture and Information Mohammed al-Banki said that many of the affected websites had been reviewed and unblocked during the course of 2009. Recent press reports indicate that the majority of blocked sites pertain to pornography and gambling. (Note: Post is aware of approximately 30 political websites that are currently blocked by the GOB. End note).

8.(C) The participants in the January 24 roundtable discussion included Abdulla Al-Derazi of the respected Bahrain Human Rights Society, Sharaf Al-Mosawi of the Bahrain Transparency Society, Abdulla Shamlawi, a respected constitutional lawyer, and Ali Abdulemam of the banned Bahrain Online network, who has been arrested on five separate charges, on the basis of remarks posted on his website (some of which were reportedly highly sectarian and inflammatory in nature). ALEC ROSS MEETS A TECH-SAVVY IAGO = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

9.(C) The Secretary's Senior Advisor for Innovation, Alec Ross, and Ambassador met January 26 with Sheikh Ahmed bin Attiyatallah Al-Khalifa, State Minister for Cabinet Affairs and Minister in Charge of Telecommunications. Sheikh Ahmed -- who is arguably the most powerful member of the ruling family after King Hamad, Crown Prince Salman, Prime Minister Khalifa, and his mentor, Royal Court Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed -- was visibly enthused to meet Ross and spoke excitedly of Ross' role in the 2008 presidential campaign.

10.(C) Sheikh Ahmed proudly touted the GOB's e-government initiative, which was ranked 13th in the world by a 2010 UN study, far ahead of other MENA countries. He also spoke of the GOB's efforts to bolster the nation's telecommunications infrastructure, including introducing Wi-Fi access all over the country and enhancing international connectivity. He added that the GOB is working on an initiative with the UN to increase Arabic language content on the internet, which currently comprises only one percent of all web content.

11.(C) In response to a query from Ross, the Minister acknowledged that the GOB is focused on infrastructure and government e-services, and that a strategy for enhancing human capital and job opportunities through technology is yet to be articulated. He requested Ross' assistance in identifying U.S. experts to advise in this endeavor; Ross agreed to make introductions to entities such as Common Sense Media, the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship and One Economy. Sheikh Ahmed also welcomed Ross' assistance in resuming talks with Google about basing a data center in Bahrain, saying that the country,s telecommunications infrastructure had improved dramatically in recent years. The Minister spoke proudly of his efforts to bring Cisco to Bahrain.

12.(C) Ross also met January 27 with the deputy head of the Central Informatics Organization (CIO), Sheikh Salman bin Mohammed Al-Khalifa -- referred to as "Assistant Minister" by his colleagues -- who had been dispatched by his superior, Sheikh Ahmed, to continue engagement with Ross. Sheikh Salman stressed the GOB's commitment to developing Arabic and other content to help develop human capital in Bahrain, stating that hosting a Google data center, while costly for the GOB (given subsidies for electricity and land) would benefit Bahrainis in the long-term. Ross told Sheikh Salman that website censorship was best left to heads of households and teachers, rather than governments, and noted that Google had announced that it would no longer locate facilities in countries that blocked or filtered their search engines. Sheikh Salman was receptive to Ross' message but noted that most Bahraini households did not yet have the requisite filtering technology. BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION = = = = = = = = = = = = =

13.(C) Forty-five year old Sheikh Ahmed bin Attiyatallah studied mathematics and computer science in the U.K. in the 1980s and has played a leading role in modernizing government services, including electoral processes, throughout his career. A "third class" Al-Khalifa (i.e., a distant cousin of the King), he owes his rise to a keen intellect and hard work, in addition to the patronage of Royal Court Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed, his first cousin. Opposition MPs, activists, and human rights NGOs assert that Sheikh Ahmed, who also runs the Civil Service Bureau, is the driving force behind GOB efforts to keep Shia Bahrainis out of most security sector jobs and most senior civil service positions. His protg, Sheikh Salman bin Mohammed, graduated from Suffolk University in Boston in 2000 and has quickly risen to become one of Sheikh Ahmed's right-hand men (colleagues in the Ministries for Cabinet Affairs and Telecommunications all referred to him as the Assistant Minister, even though his official title is Director General for Information technology at the CIO). For the past ten years, Sheikh Salman bin Mohammed has worked directly for Sheikh Ahmed, except for 2-3 years when he worked for Sheikh Khalid at the Royal Court. Sheikh Salman bin Mohammed speaks fluent English and is very amiable, and like Sheikh Ahmed, is very knowledgeable about the telecommunications and information technology arenas. COMMENT = = = =

14.(C) Since 2008, the GOB has, in fits and starts, sought to block numerous websites (ref B). The largest number blocked are pornographic or offer illegal on-line gambling. However, a number of politically-controversial sites are also affected. The GOB argues that it is blocking access to sites that stoke sectarianism, and indeed a number of Sunni extremist sites are unavailable. However, Shia rejectionists such as the Haq and Wafa movements, as well as some secular liberal activists, claim that many of their sites are blocked as well. Numerous web-savvy Bahrainis evade the blockages by using proxy servers.

15.(C) The GOB's approach to online dissent strikes many observers as tin-eared, given the GOB's desire to maintain its international reputation for reform-minded political and economic development. The Secretary,s January 21 speech, followed by Alec Ross' visit to Bahrain and meeting with Sheikh Ahmed, should emphasize to our GOB interlocutors the premium the USG now puts on freedom of expression on the internet. Post will leverage future discussions on developing a knowledge-based economy in Bahrain to relay the Secretary,s core messages about internet freedom. End comment. ERELI

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