Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja. (Photo: Waging Nonviolence)
How the Media Failed Abdulhadi

Since the start of the Arab Spring, which has led to many new seasons of protest in turn, the media has often gravitated to individual activists who have become leading figures in mobilizing the public during these revolutions. Tawakul Karman in Yemen, Ahmed Maher in Egypt and Moncef Marzouki in Tunisia — these are just three names that have resonated in the media over the course of protests. Their specific stories of perseverance in the face of brute force have galvanized people around the world.

While many of these advocates have been recognized by the media and rightfully protected for braving arrests, detention and beatings, one man in Bahrain has been holding a protest of his own within prison walls, but without much attention. Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja is the most renowned human rights defender in Bahrain, known in virtually every household and revered for pressing on with civil disobedience for greater political rights.

Abdulhadi was arrested in April 2011 for his leading role in the pro-democracy movement that engulfed the country on Valentine’s Day last year. Along with seven other activists, he was sentenced to life in prison for conspiring to overthrow the monarchy. What followed were months of severe torture and abuse, without recourse to a free trial. The already-weakened activist, who had recently undergone surgeries to repair broken bones from beatings, started a fast for freedom on February 8, 2012. He has not consumed food since that evening.

His daughters Zainab al-Khawaja and Maryam al-Khawaja remain steadfast in their commitment to the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain. While Zainab continues to lead protests on the ground, Maryam has been reporting to international organizations and foreign government about the state of affairs in Bahrain and her father’s rapidly deteriorating condition. Both continue to plead for greater support in having their father extradited to Denmark (as he is a Danish citizen) so that he maybe seek immediate and adequate medical attention.

On the 70th day of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja’s hunger strike, as he lays on his deathbed with an irregular heartbeat, I as a journalist am dismayed over our collective lack of response. We have failed to pay heed to one of the most important stories to emerge over the Arab Spring, for almost the entire year of his detention and for several weeks of his “fast unto death.” We failed to inform. We failed to protect. We have had an inexcusably late start.

The longest fast that Gandhi ever undertook was 22 days, when communal riots took over the Indian subcontinent. And when he did, the different religious factions in the country came to his feet. Hindu and Muslim leaders vowed that they would stop killing each other, albeit for the time being. Had they not heeded Gandhi’s request and had the media decided that the situation was not dire enough to report, he would have died in vain.

Abdulhadi, in contrast, spent almost two months without food before the mainstream media rushed to cover his story. While the barrage of reports from outlets across the globe is much-needed relief after a long drought of coverage on Bahrain, Abdulhadi’s case — and the plight of thousands of political prisoners — deserved attention well before he started his second hunger strike, which he stated would either end with “freedom or death.”

From my own experience of approaching editors at different leading publications, the responses ranged from “We have someone on the case” to “However grave his situation might be, it is not urgent enough for our coverage,” and went as far as “It cannot be a responsibility for the world press to keep a Bahraini activist alive.” The first response did not follow up with coverage until Abdulhadi’s condition significantly worsened, and the last response came on the 41st day of Abdulhadi’s fast. Forty days of fighting for rightful freedom were apparently not enough.

But, over the last week, since his condition rapidly deteriorated, I have noticed daily updates with stories from CNN to the Hindustan Times. Where were the reports for the past two months? Had there been such concerted media coverage and this level of exposure and critique in the very beginning or even at the half way point of the fast, perhaps he would have been extradited to Denmark well before nearing death.

Abdulhadi’s fast is no histrionic display of his suffering. It is a last resort. It is the desperation of a man whose freedom has been taken away, who has been threatened, humiliated, tortured, beaten and sexually abused, who was denied a fair trial and silenced when attempting to speak in court, and who is expected to spend the rest of his life in prison for crimes he did not commit.

On April 6, in what he thought could possibly be the last letter to his family, Abdulhadi wrote:

Our pain is made more bearable when we remember we chose this difficult path and took an oath to remain on it. We must not only remain patient through our suffering, we must never allow the pain to conquer our souls.

At this point, his daughters have said their goodbyes and are prepared that his heart might stop within days or even hours. All the media hype, with journalists entering the country in stealth to report “live,” and stories calling for international pressure — it is too little, too late, and it’s disingenuous.

While it is true that the media cannot take responsibility for the life of a man who has made a conscious decision to fast, his story is more than just his own. It is a story that resonates with the majority of people in Bahrain fighting for greater rights.

We, as a media community, failed to understand Abdulhadi’s fight. As his daughter Maryam explains, he is “dying to live.” Literally. As a citizen of Bahrain, one has few means to wage dissent against authority. And when one is left with no legal means of protest, jailed under a court that does not adhere to justice, beaten to the point of unconsciousness, tortured to the point of needing a four-hour surgery to “fix” broken bones and sexually abused to the point of having to bang one’s head against a concrete wall to make it stop, living becomes a moot point.

Abdulhadi’s fast is no more theater than were the constant beatings he endured. The torture he experienced was corroborated by the Bahraini Independent Commission of Inquiry, initiated by King Hamad himself. (Please refer to #1720, on p. 423 of the report). His suffering is the grim reality of a brutal prison system in Bahrain, where the King might present himself as willing and able to carry on reform, but can also authorize medieval forms of torture.

I am sorry to note that civil disobedience has lost its meaning in the eyes of leading vanguards of journalism, unless endorsed by a celebrity, unless strategically agreeable to influential states in the U.N. or unless there is the political will from countries like the U.S. to make bold statements of “protecting democracy and rights of individuals.”

The media community-at-large remained passive in the face of blatant injustice for a long time.  We failed to empower tens of thousands in Bahrain by highlighting the story of one man’s plight. We simply stood by until Abdulhadi’s penultimate moments before starting substantive coverage. With the Formula One Grand Prix expected to take place in Bahrain this weekend, a barrage of reports have emanated from international media outlets across the globe. But, Abdulhadi’s story and that of the majority of the population protesting in Bahrain should not be forgotten after this weekend. We must learn to look towards the larger implications of what is going on in this small island kingdom.

This article was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.