Not Free
A Obstacles to Access 15 25
B Limits on Content 6 35
C Violations of User Rights 7 40
Last Year's Score & Status
29 100 Not Free
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free). See the research methodology and report acknowledgements.

header1 Overview

Internet freedom in Bahrain remains restricted. Authorities frequently block websites and force the removal of online content, particularly social media posts criticizing the government. While social media remains a key space for activism and dissent, self-censorship is high due to the fear of online surveillance and intimidation from authorities. Journalists and activists who work online continue to face criminal penalties, extralegal harassment, and invasive surveillance by the state.

The Sunni-led monarchy dominates state institutions, and elections for the lower house of parliament are no longer competitive or inclusive. Since violently crushing a popular prodemocracy protest movement in 2011, the monarchy has systematically eliminated a broad range of political rights and civil liberties, dismantled the political opposition, and cracked down harshly on persistent dissent among the Shiite population.

header2 Key Developments, June 1, 2022 - May 31, 2023

  • In December 2022, a social media user was reportedly forced to remove an Instagram post that criticized the normalization of diplomatic ties with Israel (see B2).
  • Several social media users were arrested due to their political or religious speech, including prominent lawyer Ebrahim al-Mannai (see C3).
  • While authorities continue to rely on sophisticated spyware tools, in March 2023 the Bahraini government lost its bid for state immunity in an ongoing UK-based lawsuit filed by two Bahraini dissidents who had been previously targeted by government surveillance (see C5).
  • Government websites and state news agencies were hacked hours before parliamentary elections in November 2022 (see C8).

A Obstacles to Access

A1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections? 6.006 6.006

There are no infrastructural limitations affecting the speed and quality of internet connections, and access is widespread in Bahrain. A 2021 report from the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), Bahrain’s industry regulator, shows that 99.7 percent of citizens have network coverage outside their homes.1 As of mid-2022, internet penetration stood at 99 percent and mobile penetration reached 130 percent, according to reports from the TRA.2

Internet speeds have increased in recent years. As of May 2023, the median mobile and broadband download speeds were 91.99 megabits per second (Mbps) and 77.78 Mbps, respectively.3 The median mobile and broadband upload speeds stood at 15.53 Mbps and 20.51 Mbps, respectively.4

Batelco, a state-controlled internet service provider (ISP), began offering “superfast” 500 Mbps speeds to residential subscribers in 2016,5 and fiber-optic broadband internet became available from providers STC and Zain after the centralization of wholesale services under the Bahrain National Broadband Network Company (BNET) in October 2019 (see A3 and A4).6 Meanwhile, fourth-generation (4G) long-term evolution (LTE) mobile subscriptions have been available since 2013. By January 2021, Bahrain achieved full national fifth-generation (5G) network coverage with average speeds of 440 Mbps from three providers (Batelco, STC, and Zain).7 In April 2022, the TRA licensed Starlink to start offering satellite and internet services in Bahrain.8

Internet access is widely available in schools, universities, and shopping malls, as well as coffee shops, which often provide complimentary Wi-Fi.

A2 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Is access to the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons? 2.002 3.003

Internet access is affordable for most of the population.

Prices for mobile broadband are among the lowest in the region.1 Batelco offers a monthly 200 gigabyte (GB) mobile package starting at 9.90 Bahraini dinars ($26),2 and a monthly unlimited broadband package costs around 17.60 Bahraini dinars ($46.40).3 With more companies providing services like fiber-optic broadband (see A1), competitive packages have become readily available.4 According to a 2020 International Telecommunications Union (ITU) report on price trends, median prices for mobile and fixed broadband services accounted for less than two percent of gross national income (GNI) per capita.5

Packages with fewer calls and data—for example, one costing 7.5 Bahraini dinars ($19.8) for 9 GB per month—are affordable for Bahrain’s many low-wage migrant workers.6 Although these packages have no content limitations, the more expensive options offer higher speeds.

Given the country’s small geographical size, there is not a noticeable gap in access between rural and urban areas. The government has made efforts to promote access among women, migrant workers, and other demographics.7

A3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity? 4.004 6.006

Until 2019, Bahrain had no centralized internet backbone, though all ISPs are indirectly controlled by the government through orders from the TRA (see A5). Service providers connect to numerous international cables and gateways provided by Tata, Flag, Saudi Telecom, and Etisalat, among others, making the country less prone to unintentional internet outages.1

In 2003, the Bahrain Internet Exchange (BIX) was established as a central point for all internet traffic coming in and out of Bahrain.2 The national BIX board is appointed by the prime minister with the objective of improving connectivity in Bahrain.3 The BIX and other government bodies such as the Ministry of Information (MOI) reportedly have access to all service providers, giving authorities the ability to filter and monitor internet activity while also forcing ISPs to install or update censorship and surveillance software.4

In October 2019, Batelco, a state-controlled ISP, launched BNET, which manages the single fiber-optic broadband network in Bahrain.5 This development means that the country’s entire fiber-optic broadband network can be restricted or shut down using one switch. Major ISPs connect directly to the international internet infrastructure or work with other internet exchange providers.6

Bahraini authorities do not restrict or block social media websites or Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services. WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Telegram, and other platforms were accessible in Bahrain as of the end of the reporting period.7 Telegram was blocked in 2016, but, as of June 2021, it has become largely accessible, although users have reported intermittent issues accessing the service without the use of a virtual private network (VPN).8

No cases of connectivity restrictions were observed during the coverage period. The most recent restriction lasted for over a year, from June 2016 to July 2017, when authorities implemented an “internet curfew” in Diraz after security forces besieged the town following a sit-in around the house of Shiite cleric Issa Qassem.9

A4 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers? 3.003 6.006

Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 because the TRA suspended new mobile providers from applying for licenses, which negatively impacts market competition.

There are some obstacles for service providers seeking to enter the market, related primarily to acquiring the approval of various government bodies, as well as the installation of the required systems that facilitate government content control and monitoring. During the coverage period, the online system to apply for mobile provider licenses was seemingly suspended by the TRA.1

Batelco, Zain, and STC are the country’s three major mobile network operators and also serve as the main ISPs.2 In total, around 12 ISPs were operating as of March 2023.3 The government has a controlling stake in the largest ISP, Batelco,4 while other ISPs are owned by investors from the private sector, some of whom have ties to the royal family.5

The requirements for establishing a new ISP are published by the TRA and the Ministry of Industry and Commerce (MoIC) on their websites and include the submission of a “lawful access implementation plan” that would allow security personnel to access subscribers’ data (see C6). The initial registration fee is relatively inexpensive, though operators also need to purchase the filtering system mandated by the TRA (see B1). Furthermore, both the ISP infrastructure and employees must be located in Bahrain,6 and companies must obtain approval by the General Directorate of Criminal Investigation.7

In October 2019, Batelco was split into two entities, and a new company, BNET, owns the fiber-optic broadband network infrastructure and provides wholesale services to the licensed telecommunications operators.8 BNET is still owned by Batelco, of which the government is the largest shareholder (see A3).9 The split followed a TRA national communications plan to establish a single infrastructure network.10

With the launch of BNET, all ISPs are able to provide fiber-optic internet services as resellers, whereas before only a single provider offered these services. As a result, prices for users have decreased.11 In November 2021, BNET began allowing users to transfer their broadband account from one ISP to another with minimal service disruption.12

In April 2022, the TRA issued pricing regulations for Batelco’s international connectivity services. Batelco controls three of the four submarine cables connecting Bahrain to the global internet. The regulations aim to level the playing field for other service providers that rely on Batelco’s services and promote competitive prices for international connectivity.13

A5 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology fail to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner? 0.000 4.004

Bahraini national regulatory bodies are effectively controlled by the monarchy. They have revoked licenses of operators that failed to install monitoring and filtering systems required by government authorities and are indifferent to user complaints about internet controls. However, international organizations such as the ITU have recently credited Bahrain for improvements to the regulatory regime and the competition framework.1

Mobile service providers and ISPs are regulated by the TRA under the 2002 Telecommunications Law. The TRA is responsible for licensing telecommunication providers and for developing “a competition-led market for the provision of innovative communications services.”2 The TRA works with the government to set up and implement the national telecommunication plan, which is updated every three years and then approved by the cabinet and made available to the public.3

Although the TRA is theoretically independent, in practice its members are appointed by the king and are subject to cabinet approval.4 As of May 2023, one board member and three members of the agency’s executive management team were members of the royal family.5

In the past, the TRA has revoked the licenses of small mobile and fixed-line providers, including 2Connect6 and Bahrain Broadband, for failure to comply with several TRA regulations (see B3).7 2Connect’s license was revoked a week after the arrest of its owner, who was an opposition leader in the 2011 prodemocracy movement, seemingly as retribution for his participation in the protests.8

Despite its lack of independence, the TRA has successfully contributed to improved internet access, quality, and affordability in recent years (see A1 and A2).9

B Limits on Content

B1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content, particularly material that is protected by international human rights standards? 1.001 6.006

Authorities ramped up censorship after the 2011 prodemocracy protests, in which online media played an important role, and heavy-handed censorship has persisted since. While YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and international blog-hosting services are freely available, authorities have blocked a number of international news websites and websites hosting political content.

Once blocked, websites rarely get unblocked. Some mobile live-streaming services that were popular in 2011, including Ustream and Bambuser, remained blocked during the coverage period, as did certain VPNs.1 Though some of these websites have rebranded, their URLs still remain on the government’s list of blocked sites (see B3).2 Many Bahraini sites that were blocked in 2017 have forgone their web presence, and some websites, such as the Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, moved exclusively to social media,.3 The website of independent Bahraini news outlet Awal Online has been blocked since December 2018, when it was blocked for its critical reporting on a government minister.4

Qatari websites, including Qatari outlets Al-Arab, Al-Raya, and Al-Jazeera have been blocked since May 2017, when Bahrain cut diplomatic ties with Qatar.5 Some became briefly accessible in 2021 amid talks to restore ties with Qatar but had again become inaccessible via multiple ISPs as of May 2023. Other blocked websites include the website of Alualua TV,6 which had its new URL blocked in September 2021.7 A popular news site, Bahrain Mirror, has been blocked repeatedly in recent years.8 Despite efforts to circumvent the blocking by changing its URL, Bahrain Mirror’s website was again blocked in November 2020.9

Websites belonging to political opposition parties are inaccessible, as are some Iranian news sites. The website for the February 14 coalition, one of the leading political groups during the 2011 uprisings, remained blocked during the coverage period.10

At times, some blocked websites have been unblocked. In late January 2021, the website of Al-Quds al-Araby, a London-based newspaper that had been blocked since 2011, became available on at least one ISP; however, users still report issues accessing the platform.11 The Bahrain Center for Human Rights website, which had been previously blocked, seems to be available as of June 2023.12

According to Article 72 of the draft Press, Printing, and Publishing Law, the court can order the blocking of a news site if the chief editor is convicted of a crime committed through the website (see B6 and C2). Under Article 78, the court can also order a website to be blocked for publishing content that is considered criminal or for threatening the public order. Under Article 85, the court can order the blocking of a news site if the website “serves the interests of a foreign state or body” with policies that compromise Bahrain’s national interest, or if it has obtained aid from any foreign country or entity without permission from the Ministry of Information Affairs (MIA).13 The draft law had not passed by the end of the coverage period.

In August 2016, the TRA ordered all telecommunications companies to employ a centralized, TRA-managed system for blocking websites.14 The order was related to a $1.2 million contract awarded that year to Canadian company Netsweeper to provide a “national website filtering solution.”15 That September, Citizen Lab, a Canadian internet watchdog based in the University of Toronto, reported that Netsweeper was identified on the services of at least nine ISPs and filtered political content on at least one.16 Websites hosted overseas are less vulnerable to being blocked at the behest of the government and remain accessible to Bahrainis with access to censorship-circumvention tools.

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content, particularly material that is protected by international human rights standards? 0.000 4.004

Content deemed critical of the government is regularly removed from websites, and authorities put pressure on users through intimidation, interrogations, and arrests to force the removal of content. In December 2022, a social media user was reportedly forced to remove an Instagram post about protests against the normalization of diplomatic ties with Israel.1 Content is removed from government social media accounts when it is deemed controversial or triggers unwanted criticism.

In September 2022, Bahrain was one of six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries that issued a joint statement demanding that Netflix remove content they claimed “violates Islamic and societal values and principles.” The countries reportedly threatened legal action if Netflix failed to comply.2 Though the content in question was not specified, local media and officials in the six countries have criticized Netflix for content showing same-sex relationships and content which they said portrayed children in a sexualized manner.

In November 2021, the Justice Ministry forced the Nationalist Democratic Assembly, a political party, to cancel an online seminar that would have been broadcast on YouTube. While authorities provided no reasoning for canceling the event and broadcast, rights groups believe authorities were attempting to censor one of the seminar’s speakers, Ebrahim Sharif, an outspoken opposition leader who has critical views on the government’s economic plans.3

Users exploit platforms’ reporting mechanisms to remove comments critical of authorities and to suspend accounts operated by activists and independent journalists (see B5).4 In May 2019, following calls from the MOI to avoid interacting with “malicious” accounts, the president of the Social Media Club in Bahrain called on social media users to block and report malicious accounts, stating it was a “national duty.”5

In January 2020, several users were summoned to the Department of Cybercrimes for their posts on Twitter about the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, some of which had sympathized with Soleimani or been critical of the assassination. They were released only after deleting the posts.6 The MOI claimed that the deleted material could “harm the general order” and issued a statement warning of legal action against those who use social media to violate “public order” (see B5).7

At times, authorities request social media platforms to remove certain pieces of content. According to Meta’s transparency report, Facebook complied with two content removal requests from Bahraini authorities in the latter half of 2022.8 In the first half of 2021, Snapchat applied “content enforcement” against 24,715 pieces of Bahraini content for violating site guidelines.9

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process? 0.000 4.004

The decision-making process and government policies behind the blocking of websites are not transparent, and there is no avenue to appeal website blocking orders.

Multiple state organizations, including the MIA and MOI, can order the blocking of a website without a court order. The MIA blocks websites that violate Articles 19 and 20 of the Press Rules and Regulations, which prohibit material judged as “instigating hatred of the political regime, encroaching on the state's official religion, breaching ethics, encroaching on religions and jeopardizing public peace.”1

Authorities send lists of blocked websites to ISPs, which are instructed to “prohibit any means that allow access to sites blocked.”2 Licenses of ISPs may be revoked by the TRA for failing to cooperate with the MIA’s blocking orders (see A5).3 The government’s list of blocked websites is not available to the public, and site administrators do not receive notifications or explanations when their websites are banned.

There are no official regulations outlining an appeals process for content restriction and, in the absence of official publications of blocking orders, it is difficult to appeal through the court system. A 2009 MIA blocking order stated that no site could be unblocked without an order from the information minister.4 Appealing a website blocking is not possible for users. Although any blocked page includes a link where user can submit a request to unblock the site, the link was inaccessible during the coverage period.5

Website administrators can be held legally responsible for content posted on their platforms, including alleged libel.6 In February 2016, the MOI stated that WhatsApp group administrators may be held liable for spreading false news if they fail to report incidents that occur within their groups.7

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship? 0.000 4.004

Internet users exercise a high degree of self-censorship. Most people use pseudonyms on social media for fear of being targeted by the authorities.1 Even opposition news sites based outside Bahrain rarely publish the names of their editors.2

Intimidation tactics, surveillance, and investigations of users’ online activities have increased self-censorship.3 The Bahrain Press Association (BPA) observed that internet users who have “independent or dissenting opinions” must exercise caution when posting in order to avoid online algorithms that the Cybercrime Directorate uses to “identify its targets” (see C5).4 In a Twitter survey conducted in June 2020, 73 percent of participants said they fear legal repercussions if they comment on local issues.5 Users commonly warn each other about posts that could draw negative attention from the authorities.6

Self-censorship on social media has become acute, with users expressing increasing fear of facing prosecution for discussion of anything beyond sports, lifestyle topics, and political views in line with those of the regime.7 Activists often stop posting online following detentions or interrogations or choose to avoid controversial subjects, such as direct criticism of the king and other topics the MOI warns against (see B5).8

B5 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest? 0.000 4.004

Government authorities and progovernment trolls work effectively to manipulate the online information landscape in Bahrain.

Authorities issue official statements warning against the discussion of certain subjects and the “misuse” of social media.1 In October 2021, following the Israeli foreign minister’s visit to Bahrain, the MOI renewed its calls for citizens to avoid interacting with or reposting comments that could “provoke sedition” or threaten national unity.2 In August 2020, the MOI warned users about interacting with social media accounts run by Bahraini political groups operating abroad, specifically naming the Al-Wefaq Society and Al-Wafa Movement.3

Organized progovernment trolls have become increasingly present on social media platforms since 2011, when hundreds of accounts suddenly emerged to collectively harass and intimidate online activists.4 In November 2020, a group of progovernment users announced the establishment of a “Bahrain Electronic Army,” an organized group of users aiming at “defending Bahrain.”5 The accounts promote hate speech against human rights activists and spread disinformation about their activities.6 The government took no action to disband the group, and though the @BahrainCyber account was suspended for violating Twitter rules in February 2021, it was reactivated as of March 2022. Activists believe this “army” is sponsored by Bahraini authorities.7

Online campaigns about human rights issues have been disrupted by progovernment trolls. In late 2021, suspicious Twitter accounts posted defamatory messages against Dr. Abduljalil al-Singace, a prisoner of conscience and opposition leader.8 As hashtags that called attention to al-Singace’s hunger strike in a Bahrain prison began trending, the trolls sought to manipulate hashtags to drown out the trending hashtag.9 In December 2021, another group of Twitter trolls spread defamatory messages during a Twitter campaign that called for freedom for Shaikh Ali Salman, the leader of the Al-Wefaq political society.10 Many of these posts amplified identical messages.

B6 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online? 1.001 3.003

Regulatory restrictions limit the ability of users to publish online content, while government censorship creates indirect economic constraints that leave many outlets dependent on personal funding. Websites run by people within Bahrain must register with the MOI.1

Under Decree 68/2016, newspapers must obtain licenses from the mass media directorate to disseminate content on websites or social media.2 Outlets must provide a list of their social media accounts and website addresses, as well as the names of those who oversee them, as part of the license application, exposing employees to possible monitoring and coercion. Furthermore, newspapers may not post online videos over two minutes in length and are forbidden from streaming live videos. The law also stipulates that electronic media must publish the same content as their printed counterparts, thus limiting multimedia content. Under the existing press law, those publishing without a license face six months’ imprisonment, a fine of 5,000 Bahraini dinars ($13,200), or both.

In August 2019, the Information Affairs Authority (IAA) suspended the license of Manama Voice, a news site operated by Bahraini journalist Hani al-Fardan, without a clear reason.3 Al-Fardan continues to report using his Instagram platform, as publishing on social media does not currently require an IAA license.4

Under Article 44 of the draft Press, Publishing, and Printing Law, affected sites must register with and obtain MIA approval to operate.5 Site moderators must be Bahraini citizens and must not have previous convictions, potentially excluding thousands who were convicted in political and conscience cases over the past decade. Website owners can lose their licenses for failing to update websites for at least two months or violating the law’s personal eligibility criteria under Article 67. Under Article 85, websites receiving support from a foreign state or entity or serving foreign interests in a way deemed inconsistent with government aims can lose their licenses. Under Article 57, operating an unlicensed news site is punishable by a 3,000 to 10,000 Bahraini dinar ($7,900 to $26,400) fine, website blocking, and the confiscation of equipment used for operating the site.6 The law had not been passed by the end of the coverage period.7

There are some government restrictions on online advertising. While it is difficult for blocked websites to secure advertising, some popular blocked sites, such as Bahrain Mirror, operate with limited resources and are often self-funded.

B7 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the online information landscape lack diversity and reliability? 1.001 4.004

The internet remains the main source of information, and many people get their news from social media platforms and instant messaging apps.1 Social media offers space for discussion on issues not typically presented in traditional media such as local affairs, religion, gender issues, and migrant workers. Only outlets that operate from outside Bahrain can report on local politics freely, and many independent foreign-based sites are subject to blocking (see B1).

Online content restrictions are disproportionate and inconsistent, leading to a lack of diversity of online content. For example, in May 2020, authorities banned discussions criticizing the normalization of relations with Israel,2 yet there were no restrictions on content promoting the deal (see B5). According to Bahrain Mirror, high levels of self-censorship and the proliferation of progovernment media have shrunk the space for divisive content online.3

The government’s stringent information controls, coupled with attacks on social media, have forced some news sites, like Awal Online, to cease operations entirely (see B1 and B2). However, some blocked opposition websites and Bahraini news outlets based outside the country continue to receive traffic from users within Bahrain using proxy services, dynamic IP addresses, and VPN applications. The government used to block access to Google Translate and Google cached pages, which could be used as circumvention tools, but they were both found to be accessible as of May 2022.4

Certain topics are not covered by local media outlets. For example, the suspected use of spyware by the Bahraini government against citizens was largely omitted from mainstream media in Bahrain despite widespread reporting in international media (see C5).

Certain ethnic or religious groups are not able to contribute to the official media or are subjected harassment if they do so. For example, online content about the Persian minority is non-existent, and media outlets are prohibited from using the Persian language or discussing Persian culture. The Shia religious community, which makes up almost 50 percent of the population, often complains about the lack of representation in the traditional media space, both online and offline.5

B8 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues? 3.003 6.006

Activists rely heavily on digital tools, particularly social media, to draw attention to protests and human rights violations. However, due to systemic online surveillance and the threat of arrest, prosecution, and other consequences for online activity, many users are wary of participating in political discussions over social media1 and often use pseudonyms (see B4). In the past, authorities have blocked some tools used to mobilize or campaign, such as Telegram (see A3).

In February 2022, reports emerged that Bahraini activists, many of whom organize human rights campaigns online, were targeted with spyware, likely by the government. Research from Citizen Lab confirmed that the targets, many of whom had their phones infected with Pegasus spyware, included three activists (see C5).2 The crackdown on dissent via the use of invasive surveillance technology has further shrunk the already limited space for online mobilization and has encouraged self-censorship. Social media is one of the only spaces left for this kind of civic dissent in Bahrain.3

Even as its users increasingly self-censor, X, previously known as Twitter, remains a key platform for mobilization. Users often use it to report on the status and conditions of detained activists and to call for their release.4 However, progovernment trolls frequently attempt to disrupt these campaigns (see B5). In February 2022, Twitter was a vital space for Bahrainis to voice their objections to the normalization of ties with Israel.5

In recent years, feminist activism has been more noticeable in online discussions and on social media. Internet users have taken to social media to raise awareness of gender-based violence (GBV) and to promote women’s rights.6 In August 2021, people took to social media to campaign for the right of Bahraini women to pass down Bahraini citizenship to their children.7 Additionally, in September 2021, Twitter users brought attention to the challenges women who wish to get divorced face due to the strict nature of the Sharia courts.8

C Violations of User Rights

C1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do the constitution or other laws fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and are they enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence? 0.000 6.006

A variety of laws place restrictions on free speech, and the compromised judiciary does not uphold protections that do exist.

Article 23 of the constitution guarantees freedom of expression “provided that the fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine are not infringed, the unity of the people is not prejudiced, and discord or sectarianism is not aroused.”1 Article 26 states that all written, telephonic, and electronic communications will not be censored except in cases specified by law.2 The 2002 Press and Publications Law promises free access to information. Bahraini journalists have argued that qualifying statements and loosely worded clauses allow for arbitrary interpretation and, in practice, the negation of the rights the provisions claim to uphold.3

The Bahraini judicial system is neither independent nor fair.4 Serious crimes have been committed against internet users, including torture (see C7), and impunity for these offenses prevails.5

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities, particularly those that are protected under international human rights standards? 0.000 4.004

Multiple laws, including the penal code and terrorism laws, criminalize free speech and online activities.

Criminal penalties for online speech are currently enforced under the 2002 Press and Publications Law,1 which does not specifically mention online activities but has been applied to digital media. The law allows for prison sentences ranging from six months to five years for publishing material that criticizes Islam, its followers, or the king, as well as material that instigates violent crimes or the overthrow of the government.2 Article 70 of the law penalizes certain types of content, including “false news” that undermines public security and criticism of presidents or states with which Bahrain has diplomatic ties.3 In addition, the 2002 Telecommunications Law contains penalties for several online activities, such as the transmission of messages that are offensive to public policy or morals.4

Those tried under the penal code or antiterrorism laws can face longer sentences than those prosecuted under the 2002 Press and Publications Law—especially for social media activity, for which the press law is not applied.5 Article 290 of the penal code stipulates that “intentional misuse of telecommunication mediums” is punishable by up to six months’ imprisonment and a 50 Bahraini dinar ($132) fine, but it is regularly combined with other articles for more severe punishments. Under the penal code, any user who deliberately spreads false information that may damage national security or public order can face up to two years’ imprisonment.6 Under Article 309, insults to religion or ridicule of religious rituals may be punished by a fine of 100 Bahraini dinars ($260) or a prison term of up to one year. In February 2014, the king ratified an amendment to the penal code that includes a prison sentence of up to seven years and a fine of up to 10,000 Bahraini dinars ($26,000) for those who insult the king.7

In May 2019, the king ratified an amendment to Article 11 of the terrorism law that criminalizes propagating, glorifying, justifying, favoring, or encouraging acts that constitute terrorist activities, with a penalty of up to five years’ imprisonment and a 2,000 to 5,000 Bahraini dinar fine ($5,300 to $13,200).8 Activists and lawyers warned social media users that commenting, retweeting, liking, or forwarding content could fall afoul of the amendment.9

Under the draft Press, Publishing, and Printing Law, online news reporters can receive fines for publishing content that is deemed to fall into a list of vaguely worded categories, including “false news, insulting the monarchy, subjecting it to criticism, or imposing responsibility on it for the actions of the government, undermining the regime, [or] news that will affect the value of the national currency.”10 In a positive development, the law abolishes the jailing of journalists, though they can still be penalized under the penal code.11 The law was not passed by the end of the coverage period.

In June 2019, the MOI posted on Twitter that anyone who follows exiled opposition members could face criminal charges and imprisonment. Twitter later issued a statement saying the MOI’s tweet violated freedom of expression.12

C3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities, particularly those that are protected under international human rights standards? 2.002 6.006

Individuals are frequently detained and prosecuted for online activities, and those who are convicted typically receive prison sentences.

In 2022, at least 41 activists and journalists were arrested, detained, interrogated, or prosecuted for speech-related issues, including their online activity.1 In their 2022 report, the Bahrain Press Association recorded at least 17 cases in which people were arrested or detained for their online or social media activity, and the most common charges brought against those investigated were “insulting a statutory body, spreading fake news, insulting religious symbols, and insulting and defaming.”2

Several internet users were arrested for their religious speech during the coverage period. In February 2023, three individuals associated with the Al Tajdeed Society, a cultural organization with a large social media following, were arrested and now face one year in prison because of videos posted to their Twitter accounts in which they discussed and questioned some tenants of Islam.3 They are being charged with “insulting” religious texts and “violating foundations of Islam.”4 In May 2023, two of the individuals were sentenced to one year in prison each.5

In May 2023, the public prosecutor ordered the arrest of a cleric with a large social media following after he shared a weekly prayer on social media.6 According to the public prosecutor, the speech contained “false news” that could “disturb civil peace.” In the video, the cleric was asking people to no accept the normalization of diplomatic relations between Bahrain and Israel. The cleric was released one week later.

Several internet users received prison sentences for their online content during the coverage period. A foreigner was arrested and sentenced to six months in prison for posting a video to her social media account that included “deceitful” language and “immodesty.”7 In August 2022, two TikTok users were sentenced to a month in prison after posting a video on the platform deemed to be insulting to religious symbols.8 In June 2023, after the coverage period, a court sentenced an online activist to two months in prison for insulting the Ministry of Education on Instagram.9

Internet users were summoned by the public prosecutor and interrogated over political online content during the reporting period. In September 2022, lawyer Abdulla Hashim was summoned to a Bahraini court because of his posts about unemployment figures on Twitter.10 Activist Nawal Atteya was summoned several times, by both the public prosecutor and the cybercrime unit, because of material she posted to Twitter that criticized the parliament.11 In July 2022, political activist Mohd Alaradi was summoned by the cybercrime unit following a complaint filed by the Ministry of Education in relation to his Twitter posts that criticized the ministry. In November 2022, he was summoned again by the cybercrime unit because of his WhatsApp messages about a parliamentary candidate.12 In all cases those summoned were released the same day.

In March 2023, prominent lawyer and activist Ebrahim al-Mannai was arrested after sharing a news story about the Inter-Parliamentary Union on Twitter with a comment that called on Bahrain’s parliament to be more effective.13 Three other Twitter users who also retweeted the post were subsequently arrested for “abusing social media” and sharing content deemed to “prejudice public order.” Mannai was released shortly after his arrest; however, all four individuals still face criminal charges.14

During the coverage period, GCC countries collaborated to penalize online journalists. In August 2022, journalist Wafa Alam was denied entry to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and was told that her name was blacklisted by the Bahraini MOI.15 In September 2022, another journalist, Nazeeha Saeed, was also denied entry to the UAE but was not told why.16

At least three other internet users are still serving prison sentences for earlier online activities, including Abduljalil al-Singace, a human rights defender and blogger who has been serving a life sentence since 2011 on charges of possessing links to a terrorist organization,17 disseminating false news, and inciting antigovernment protests.18

C4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption? 1.001 4.004

The government restricts the use of many VPNs, imposes onerous registration requirements on mobile phone users, and has sought to uncover the identities of anonymous or pseudonymous users in order to prosecute them. A 2014 cybercrimes law criminalizes the use of encryption to commit or conceal “criminal intentions,” and perpetrators may face imprisonment or a fine.1 Observers contend that “criminal intentions” could include criticism of the government.

The TRA requires users to provide identification when registering for telecommunications services, and the government prohibits the sale or use of unregistered prepaid SIM cards.2 A TRA regulation introduced in July 2017 requires people to be physically present when registering SIM cards directly with providers,3 who must verify the identity of all subscribers, including through fingerprinting,4 a requirement justified as a security and anticrime measure.5 All prepaid SIM card users are required to renew registration annually to avoid service cuts.6 In June 2020, the TRA ordered STC Bahrain to immediately deactivate all unregistered cards.7

Tech-savvy activists use VPNs to conceal their identities, yet access to websites of popular VPNs and anonymity services like Tunnel Bear, Express VPN, and Tor are blocked, which makes it difficult to download their client applications.8 Anonymous government critics have been sent malicious links that allow authorities to ascertain their identity and take legal action against them (see C5).

C5 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy? 1.001 6.006

State surveillance of online activities is widespread and targets both government loyalists and the opposition. Several reports have documented the government’s use of spyware against dissidents. In March 2023, the Bahraini government lost its bid for state immunity in an ongoing UK-based lawsuit filed by two Bahraini dissidents who had been previously targeted by government surveillance.1

In February 2022, Red Line for Gulf (RL4G), a London-based freedom of expression group, and Citizen Lab confirmed the use of Pegasus spyware in Bahrain.2 Pegasus is a targeted spyware software developed by the NSO Group, an Israeli technology firm.3 These reports confirmed that 13 Bahraini activists, including two living in exile, were successfully targeted by Pegasus. The targets, many of whom had their phones infected with the malware, included human rights defenders, political figures, and researchers. One such target was opposition lawyer Mohammed al-Tajer, who suspended his human rights activism in 2017 and has been targeted with surveillance in the past.4 Another target was Dr. Sharifa Siwar, a psychologist who was imprisoned for her online activity in 2019.5 Her phone was infected in June 2021, one month after she was pardoned by the king and released from prison.6 Between June 2020 and February 2021, nine additional activists were targeted with Pegasus,7 including three human rights activists.8

Reporting also revealed that authorities were using these spyware tools as part of a mass surveillance campaign.9 The RL4G report found that among potential Pegasus targets were around 40 percent of the members of parliament, including the chairman of the parliament and his deputy, more than 20 percent of the Shura Council, members of the royal family, ministers, a US state department official who was stationed in Bahrain, businessmen, journalists, and human rights defenders. According to reports, the malware attacks likely originated with the MOI.10

In October 2018, it was revealed that Bahrain had purchased espionage and intelligence-gathering software from private companies, including a system from the Israeli company Verint used for collecting information from social networks, and that Bahraini intelligence officers were trained in their use.11 Additionally, several government departments have purchased and used different surveillance software over the last decade, such as Cellebrite,12 which was used to target a Bahraini activist in 2016, and FinFisher, the use of which has been documented in Bahrain since 2008.13

The Cybercrimes Department includes a social media monitoring unit that seeks to “identify and prevent… crimes” on social media. Department officials receive training to identify “permitted speech and forbidden speech,” whether it is text, video, or audio.14 A Cyber Safety Directorate within the Ministry of State for Telecommunications Affairs was launched in November 2013 to monitor websites and social media networks, ostensibly to prevent the instigation of violence or terrorism and the dissemination of false news that may “pose a threat to the kingdom's security and stability.”15

In January 2017, the government ratified the Arab Treaty on Combating Cybercrime, a set of standards developed to stem the misuse of telecommunications devices, financial fraud, the promotion of terrorism, and access to pornographic content online. The treaty establishes rules on user data retention and real-time monitoring, as well as a mechanism for sharing information between signatories to help combat transnational crime. The lack of strong human rights standards in the treaty may increase the scope for privacy infractions once it is transposed into local law.16

C6 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does monitoring and collection of user data by service providers and other technology companies infringe on users’ right to privacy? 0.000 6.006

Since 2009, the TRA has mandated that all telecommunications companies keep a record of customers’ phone calls, emails, and website visits for up to three years. Companies are also obliged to provide security forces access to subscriber data upon request from the public prosecution, while the provision of the data content requires a court order.1

In order to receive an operating license, service providers must develop a Lawful Access Capability Plan that would allow security forces to access communications metadata (see A4). In 2020, two ISPs were fined by the TRA due to their lack of a Lawful Access Capability Plan.2

In July 2018, Bahrain introduced a personal data protection law similar to the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that delineates the requirements for entities collecting, processing, and storing personal data, including gaining user consent and informing them that data is being collected. Article 2.4(b) exempts national security-related data processing undertaken by the MOI, the National Security Agency (NSA), the Defense Ministry, and other security services.3 The law became effective in August 2019.4 It is unclear what its enforcement might look like, but violators can be taken to court. As of March 2022, the Bahrain Data Protection Authority had issued several executive orders specifying the details of data owners' rights, data processing procedures, and complaints handling procedures.5

According to transparency reports, Meta received two requests for user data in the latter half of 2022.6 Information on local providers complying with the state’s requests for user data is not made public.

C7 1.00-5.00 pts0-5 pts
Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in relation to their online activities? 2.002 5.005

Violence, torture, and sexual assault against online activists and journalists at the hands of the authorities is common in Bahrain.1 Numerous online activists have fled Bahrain, and dissidents in exile are frequently harassed by government officials who threaten to harm their families in Bahrain.

Individuals commenting on the November 2020 death of Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa faced mistreatment at the hands of the authorities. A 60-year-old woman reportedly lost consciousness while being interrogated,2 while a teenage girl was interrogated without her parents or lawyer being present and was forced to sign a confession.3 Detainees, including minors, were prohibited from contacting their families or managing their hygienic needs while in detention.4

Bahraini activists living abroad are subject to online threats from people affiliated with the security forces.5 In March 2021, activist Hasan Abdulnabi received threats against his family as part of a campaign to force him to stop his activities on Instagram, where he posts critical comments on Bahraini politics.6 In May 2019, the MOI targeted the Twitter account of Adel Marzooq, an exiled journalist and chief editor of the Gulf House for Studies and Publishing, threatening to act against the organization and those who promoted its messages.7 The threats came after Marzooq speculated on a conflict within the royal family over replacing the prime minister.8 In January 2022, Marzooq said that his three-year-old daughter was not provided a Bahraini passport, in apparent retaliation for his online activity.9

C8 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Are websites, governmental and private entities, service providers, or individual users subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack? 1.001 3.003

Cyberattacks against both opposition and government supporters are common in Bahrain. In July 2021, the Instagram and YouTube accounts and the website of the Al-Wafa opposition group were hacked by unknown attackers.1

Government websites and state-affiliated news agencies were hacked during the coverage period. Ahead of parliamentary and local elections in November 2022, unknown hackers targeted government websites and state-run news agencies, leaving the affected webpages inaccessible for several hours.2 In February 2023, a hacking group launched a cyberattack against the Bahrain International Airport website, as well as a state news agency, to mark the 12-year anniversary of the Arab Spring uprisings in Bahrain.3

In January 2022, the head of the National Center for Cyber Security said that Bahrain has been targeted with numerous “electronic terrorism” attacks from foreign countries.4 In June 2021, the Bahrain Development Bank was subject to an electronic attack that suspended its operations for over two weeks.5 The perpetrator of this attack is unknown.

In August 2021, Bahrain’s Information and eGovernment Authority (iGA) issued a warning about text messages purportedly containing infected links to register for COVID-19 booster shots. These messages contained malware that would give hackers access to infected mobile devices.6

On Bahrain

See all data, scores & information on this country or territory.

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  • Global Freedom Score

    12 100 not free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    28 100 not free
  • Freedom in the World Status

    Not Free
  • Networks Restricted

  • Websites Blocked

  • Pro-government Commentators

  • Users Arrested