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You might think that publishing a letter to the editor in The New York Times cannot possibly be a crime. But you probably don’t live in Bahrain.
Nabeel Rajab has been in prison since June in Bahrain, facing a sentence of up to 15 years for things he has written criticizing that government’s repressive policies. From prison, he sent a letter to the Times which was published on September 4th and can be found here.
Mr. Rajab has exposed human rights abuses in Bahrain and does so again in that letter. For writing the letter he has now been charged with “intentionally broadcasting false news and malicious rumours abroad impairing the prestige of the state.”
Nothing could possibly "impair the prestige of the state" as much as this prosecution, and Bahrain’s own repeated human rights violations. Mr. Rajab is trying to repair the prestige of the state by pressing it to act decently.
And the part about “intentionally broadcasting false news and malicious rumours" is right out of the Soviet playbook. What is false news, after all? In Soviet days, whatever the Party said was false news; today in Bahrain, it’s whatever the government and the royal family say is false. Criminal laws against publishing "false news" are unfortunately not rare, but they are increasingly being recognized as indefensible violations of freedom of speech and press. To take one example, in Zimbabwe--a dictatorship ruled by Robert Mugabe--a court had the courage in 2014 to strike down the "false news" statute because it "violated the right to freedom of expression and was not reasonably justifiable in a democratic society." Similarly, the High Court in Zambia that same year struck down the "false news" statute there, saying it did “not pass the test of being reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.”
Bahrain is moving in the wrong direction. The additional charges against Nabeel Rajab, for writing a letter to The New York Times, show how very far it has traveled away from the decent and lawful society it seemed to be just a few years ago. That’s what is destroying "the prestige of the state."