The recent outbreak of violence in several Muslim-majority countries, ostensibly in response to a malicious amateur video created by anti-Muslim hatemongers, has prompted calls to formally restrict speech that insults or does not “respect” religions and prophets. Freedom House, along with many other human rights and free expression organizations, has spent years attempting to turn the tide of opinion at the United Nations against this idea, which has reared its head annually in the form of a resolution condemning the so-called “defamation of religions.” In 2011 we succeeded, only to see the progress quickly reversed as a result of the disparaging Innocence of Muslims video clip and the ensuing violence, which has left dozens of people dead around the world.
I was supposed to be in Bahrain this past weekend to lead an international freedom of expression mission with representatives of several prominent advocacy groups, including the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, the Committee to Protect Journalists, PEN International, Index on Censorship, and Reporters Without Borders. However, after approving our mission in early April, and even offering to arrange meetings with relevant officials, Bahrain’s Ministry of Human Rights and Social Development decided to deny permission for the joint mission just days before we were to depart, meaning our organizations had already incurred travel and other expenses. The letter we received cited “new guidelines” that prohibit more than one organization from visiting at a time, and assured us that this was “merely an organizational matter.” But given that this is the second time this year that Freedom House has been denied entry to Bahrain, the ministry’s explanation seems rather dubious.