Why using the Bahrain Grand Prix as PR will backfire

If you’ve been bored enough to read my posts before you might have picked up a certain ... reticence when it comes to sport. In fact, I more or less turned my back on all sport a long time ago (this has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that as an impressionable youngster I supported Coventry City FC. Nothing …).

These days I might follow the controversies, but I definitely don’t follow the form or any particular team or players. Nope, just things that catch my eye. Like … horses dying in the sport of kings on Saturday (some sport), or the fact that Formula 1’s Bernie Ecclestone has been saying that everything is “peaceful” in Bahrain ahead of this weekend's Grand Prix. Peaceful? Really? Well the Daily Mirror's sport correspondent Byron Young, who is in the country, would disagree. Check out some of his tweets from yesterday (“Locals march on third and final day of mourning at cemetery for local cameraman killed. Tension high now…. Police pursuit turned at protestors in our direction, teargas canister landed as we ran back to the car and sped off, gas swirling around us …”). The rather remarkable photo of the woman in the abaya and gas mask is his.

Ecclestone’s move-on-nothing-to-see-here downplaying seems to be backfiring, as numerous journalists have been reporting disturbances in Bahrain as well as citing Amnesty’s latest (fairly damning) assessment of the country’s recent human rights performance. This, to me, only goes to prove the point that sometimes when a controversial sporting fixture goes ahead, the effect can be almost the opposite of a PR boost. Scenting a “sports-wash”, journalists - even sport journalists generally unused to opening Amnesty emails - start digging ...

So, one way and another, journalists covering the Grand Prix are probably more (not less) likely to report on cases like Fadhel Mirza al-Obeidi’s (a 22-year-old man from al-Deraz, killed after being hit on the head by a tear gas canister fired by the security forces on 3 March as he walked in front of a demonstration), or Yaseen AlAsfoor's (a 14-year-old boy who suffered from asthma, who died after the security forces fired three tear gas canisters into his house in the village of Ma’ameer). Or, indeed, the case of the hunger-striking prisoner of conscience, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja (please support the Amnesty campaign for his release here).

And you get the impression that the Bahraini authorities - and those working closely with them - are maybe trying a bit too hard. How else to explain John Yates’ rather bizarre remark about feeling safer in Bahrain than in London? Yates might not even be wrong on this, but it totally misses the point. It’s not his safety that’s at issue. It’s the thousands of Bahrainis who dare to demonstrate or challenge the ruling Khalifa family that are at risk. For instance, how “safe” do you reckon the 65-year-old political activist Mohammad Hassan Jawad felt at this moment one day last year:

“…So I entered the torture room, they asked me to stand with groups of three or four people all masked holding a hose and some other torture tools including an electrocuting machine. They made me hear its sound on purpose so they’d scare me, I was wondering whether they’ll use it or not. But after they tied my hands and my legs with a steel cuff I knew they wanted to. They started torturing me from the bottom of my feet and the pain was terrible, it was so bad that I felt my soul was being sucked into a different world.”

And how safe do you reckon Jawad is feeling right now, sitting in prison serving a 15-year sentence on trumped-up charges?

As Amnesty's Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui says, “no-one should be under any illusions” that - Grand Prix or no Grand Prix - Bahrain’s human rights crisis is over. The Bahraini authorities have trumpeted the “BICI” report and its “reforms” but kept journalists and human rights organisations out of the country when it suited them. And the authorities are reportedly paying considerable sums in image consultancy while many of the country’s Shias live in slum conditions (I thought that a quietly revealing moment in an August 2011 Al Jazeera documentary on Bahrain was one showing that numerous discriminated-against Shias live in poverty in this generally wealthy country).

Lest we forget, poverty and a lack of dignity were at the root of the Tunisian vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi’s protest back in December 2010 and it’s a factor in the Bahrain crisis as well. Somewhat ironically, the Grand Prix, this not-exactly-very-egalitarian sport, is inadvertently bringing these issues to the fore. Oh, sport. Right. Well, as usual, I've no idea which driver or manufacturer’s team is going to win the Grand Prix in Manama. But I think I know who is not going to be first across the winning line on Sunday …. the Bahraini authorities.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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