What on earth was I thinking?

Volume 33, Number 2, June 2022

Would you risk a long prison sentence under a repressive regime to smuggle incriminating video needed by a colleague? This writer did

I am sitting in a food court in a nearly empty mall, sipping a McDonald’s coffee and waiting for my Bahraini contact to arrive and take his seat. He is to be wearing a white shirt, carrying a newspaper, and eating an ice cream cone. He knows that he is looking for an old, tall, bald American in a specific seat, drinking a coffee and reading John Le Carré’s Our Kind of Traitor. My warped sense of humour had decided Le Carré was a nice espionage touch.

Outside on the streets of downtown Manama, tanks are everywhere. It is April 2011 and Bahrain is under martial law. Soldiers representing the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – led by neighbouring Saudi Arabia – have launched, six weeks earlier, what The New York Times called a “ferocious crackdown against a popular uprising”.

Mass protests, mostly peaceful, that attracted almost a quarter – nearly 150,000 – of Bahrain’s population have been ruthlessly suppressed. The protesters were overwhelmingly Shia Bahrainis (60 per cent of Bahrainis are Shia) demanding political reforms that would give them fundamental political and human rights. According to the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry created by the king after the uprising, Bahrain security forces and the Gulf States troops arrested thousands and killed 19. Inside Seef Mall, there is no sign of my contact and we are getting close to the 10-minute window where the “dead drop” is going to take place. It will soon be now or never …

This was to be my only opportunity to retrieve a hard drive filled with Al Jazeera-recorded video, documenting how Bahraini security forces and their hired thugs had beaten and tortured protestors. It would show how doctors and their staff were working around the clock at Salmaniya Hospital, trying to save the lives of wounded protestors, making life-and-death decisions that would later result in many of them being arrested and imprisoned.

Why I was chosen for this assignment was never fully explained to me. I was nearly 70, a part-time journalist working in London as an executive producer for programming for Al Jazeera English (AJE). I also continued to teach my postgraduate course for international journalism students at City University.

Out of the blue, after Bahrain had kicked out all international journalists, including a team from Al Jazeera English, I was contacted by my boss, AJE director of programmes Paul Eedle. Curiously, he didn’t want to email on the AJE system or speak on the phone. He instructed me to go to Facebook to get information about an undercover assignment that he wanted me to consider.

He explained that video journalist May Ying Welsh, who had done brilliant work in Manama for over a month, had left behind hard drives that would show the outside world the bloodbath that had taken place inside Salmaniya Hospital. She knew that authorities would seize all her equipment and video before she was forced to leave Bahrain along with the rest of the press and media corps.

By this time, Al Jazeera’s state owner Qatar – as part of the occupying GCC – was fully involved in the violent putdown of the Bahraini rebellion. Its own state-funded broadcaster Al Jazeera Arabic, the most authoritative voice in the Arab world, had betrayed its reputation as the “voice of the voiceless” as its Qatari masters reportedly ordered it to stop covering Bahrain.

Academic and writer Toby Matthieson, who watched events unfold in Manama, later recalled trying to get news coverage of what was being described on the streets as a government “massacre” of protestors at the Pearl Roundabout. “The next few hours I stayed glued to the internet, and after a while some English-language stations were beginning to bring news feeds about the crackdown. Al Jazeera Arabic, although they placed a 24-hour feed on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, was not reporting this story, as the Qataris were nervous about protests spreading in the Gulf states.” 

Even though Al Jazeera Arabic had gone silent on Bahrain, AJE’s Eedle and May Ying Welsh – now back in Doha – were trying to keep the spotlight on Bahrain and were determined to finish a documentary about the atrocities committed by Bahraini security forces. But she and her producers urgently needed the video proof, the evidence that existed on the hard drive that she’d been forced to leave in safe hands in Manama.

The challenge was to retrieve the hard drive. Eedle’s team decided that expatriate Americans working for AJE should be approached on the grounds that we would be able to enter Bahrain without a visa and be deemed low risk because of the huge presence of Americans attached to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet that was headquartered there. Americans and their families were constantly flying in and out of Bahrain.

But there were few Americans working for Al Jazeera English and living in Doha. Eedle’s team identified a young American working as a TV news planning producer. I shall call him Brian. Ten years later, Brian told me that he decided fairly quickly that he was prepared to take on the assignment after weighing the risks against what he thought were “the merits of doing it”. Asked if he was given any assurances about what Al Jazeera English would do to intervene if the Bahrainis caught him, he said he didn’t press Eedle for anything in writing and could not recall any guarantees about coming to his aid.

The spy who came in from the loo

He told me how he had picked up the hard drive from the opposition party MP Matar Matar, who would loom large in my own assignment. When Brian turned up at the party HQ , he was ordered to remove the battery from his phone and wrap it in tinfoil so no one could track it. Matar Matar was 35, the youngest member of parliament and one of the most outspoken and articulate voices during the nightly protests at the Pearl Roundabout before Bahraini and Saudi forces smashed the movement.

Brian’s mission was a limited but critical one. He was to stash the hard drive containing the damning video proof of Bahraini abuses atop the toilet stalls in the Seef Mall, ready for an Al Jazeera security expert to collect it.

But that expert had tried and failed to get the hard drive through security and it was now imperative that I go in and try to do so. I’d already received a detailed sketched schematic drawing from Brian pinpointing where I should wait in the food bay at the Mall.

The pressure was building, and I was beginning to have doubts. I was told to book my flight to Manama and a next-day flight to Dubai, where I would overnight before returning to London. In reality, once safely in Dubai with the hard drive, I would instead fly to Doha and deliver it to May Ying Welsh and her colleagues. I made the bookings but soon afterwards was told to cancel them because the situation in Manama was too uncertain. I should stand by.

A day later, I was told my assignment was a go and to re-book my flights and make a hotel reservation in Manama. On April 26, I flew there. I had no problems at immigration explaining why I was travelling to Bahrain. I had an American passport and mentioned that I was a university professor who was in Manama briefly before travelling on to Dubai and other Gulf countries.

I went directly to my hotel on the outskirts of Manama, having been advised to avoid staying in the five-star hotels in the centre. I’d be less likely to encounter security operatives or informants working for American companies. It was good advice as there was virtually no one staying at the Elite Hotel where I would spend the night. But I was getting more anxious

about how things would go the next day. I realised that I’d read and seen one too many spy thrillers when I went for a swim in the outdoor pool atop the hotel and became concerned about the presence of the only other person, a man who stood at one end of the pool and watched me swim laps.

The next morning, I was mulling over how best to use my time before the “drop” window between 11.20 and 11.30 at the food court. I was almost certain that I was not under surveillance but put into practice one of the tips taught to investigative journalists, ordering a taxi to take me to the Bahrain National Museum and, when we arrived, asking the driver to wait for me while I walked around the outside of the building. Satisfied that no one was following me, I got back in the taxi and asked to be driven to the Seef Mall. I arrived there with 30-45 minutes to spare before the drop was to take place. The mall was eerily quiet.

Colour Graphic

I made my way to the second floor and the fast-food restaurants, where I knew from Brian’s detailed drawing I was supposed to be sitting. It all made sense, so I strolled back to the empty stores and pretended to do a little shopping. Then I sauntered back to the food court, got my cup of coffee and pulled out my copy of Le Carré. I was increasingly aware of several other single middle-aged men sitting in the food court. I was either anxious or paranoid or both. Suddenly a large group of small children, each with an outstretched arm on the child in front, made their way to the toilets. Would this make the drop impossible? How long would these kids stay in there? And what about the janitor who suddenly appeared to clean up the toilets?

Miraculously, just minutes before the high drama of the drop was supposed to take place, the children were out of the toilet along with the janitor. Then, as written in the spy playbook, my contact arrived. He looked precisely the part: young, dark hair, wearing glasses, a crisp white shirt with rolled-up sleeves, jeans, sneakers, eating an ice cream cone and carrying a small bag and a rolled-up newspaper. He paused briefly, then made his way to the toilet.


My mystery contact is revealed


As planned, I watched him return to his seat near me, waited for a few minutes, then made my way to the toilet. After some confusion about which stalls corresponded to the marked ones in my drawing, I worked out which were “1 & 2”. I entered “1”, shut the door and climbed on top of the toilet seat. Being 6ft 2ins made it easy to reach. Yes, it was there, and I grabbed it, stepped down and put it in a concealed place inside my backpack. I stayed put for a few minutes. On my way out, I walked casually past the seating area and my young Bahraini contact was still there. He looked up briefly as I strolled by.

I tried for years to find out who my contact was and solved the mystery only at a recent lunch with the Bahraini former MP Matar Matar and his family. He told me that he had been there that day. Finding out that it was Matar Matar made me realise that what we’d done was more dangerous than I had realised. He was by this time a marked man and likely to have been under surveillance. Indeed, six days after the pick-up, he was grabbed by hooded security forces and thrown into jail, where he would remain for 99 days.

I took a taxi to my hotel and tried to relax before departing for the airport. I did have one lingering concern: I now had a hard drive but no connecting cable for it. That could make airport security suspicious. There would be two security checks at the airport: the first as my backpack and carry-on suitcase were put on the conveyor belt, a second at the gate before awaiting a call to board.

I was extremely tense when we began queuing, noticing agents who were ready to examine bags in the event of suspicions. This was the moment I dreaded. But the hard drive provoked no questions. Unless there was some last-minute challenge or intervention, I was cleared to board the plane. I took my seat and waited for the announcement.

I emailed Paul Eedle at his old pre-Al Jazeera email address to let him know that all went well: “Got to watch Man United beat Schalke and today visited National Museum – quite lovely. Am looking forward to flying to Dubai late this afternoon.

Eedle emailed back: “Splendid, glad you’ve found lots to do. Do let me know when you’ve arrived in Dubai and we can organise the evening. Cheers, Paul.

Nearly an hour and a half later, I arrived in Dubai. I emailed Eedle again, told him I had booked myself into the five-star Grand Hyatt, and asked his assistant to arrange my flight the next day to Doha: “All went according to plan but with some last-minute complications. Straight out of a thriller. Bahrain is now benevolently sinister. Glad to be out of there. 

I checked in at the hotel and went straight to the bar, where I ordered a very good bottle of red wine and drank it all. The next morning, I took an early flight to Doha and went straight to the Al Jazeera English offices to hand over the hard drive. There were no standing ovations but many expressions of appreciation for what I’d accomplished. And the hard drive was as damning as Welsh had said it was. Later, after a long lunch at a nearby Indian restaurant with Eedle, Brian and May Ying, I went back to my hotel and collapsed.

Shouting in the Dark first aired on Al Jazeera English on August 4, 2011. It was viewed nearly 200,000 times in the first four days after it was posted on YouTube (as I write, the figure is now 891,055). May Ying Welsh’s opening narration remains dramatic and incisive:

Bahrain: an island kingdom in the Arabian Gulf where the Shia Muslim majority are ruled by a family of the Sunni minority. Where people fighting for democratic rights broke the barriers of fear, only to find themselves alone and crushed. This is their story and Al Jazeera is their witness, the only television journalists who remained to follow their journey of hope to the carnage that followed. This is the Arab revolution that was abandoned by the Arabs, forsaken by the West, and forgotten by the world.” 

The documentary outraged Bahrain. Then-New York Times media writer Brian Stelter reported that Al Jazeera was pressured by Qatar to drop several re-airings and instead run it one more time followed by a studio discussion. Shouting in the Dark won seven major journalism, film and television awards.

For any Bahraini associated with the making of the film, there was a price to be paid. One person closely involved told me recently that after Shouting in the Dark aired, he was forced to flee Bahrain for several months. His family worried that there would be repercussions for them, especially for his brother. When he did return, he said: “The word was out in the media: don’t touch this guy.” He could not get hired and had to look for work in other areas.

Matar Matar spent 99 days in prison because he spoke out on behalf of his constituents at the Pearl Roundabout. He was punished too, he told me, for his interactions with journalists that angered the government and led to his arrest on charges of “spreading misinformation” about the kingdom. He said he knew what he was doing was “risky, even crazy” but was honourbound to tell the world what was happening in Bahrain, contrary to the lies and disinformation aired on state television. Its leading presenters and newsreaders even served as government spokesmen and women, denouncing the protestors and spewing propaganda to international broadcasters.

I would now ask for guarantees up front

As one who displayed what some might characterise as “foolish courage” in agreeing to be part of the Al Jazeera English undercover mission, I now – given what I know today about the brutal realities of authoritarian rule in Gulf countries, including Qatar – would not undertake this assignment without written commitments and guarantees. I question whether my “bosses” would have acted out of principle and risked their own careers to intervene had the incriminating hard drive been discovered in Brian’s or my possession and we were detained in a Bahrain jail.

After all, the Al Jazeera English channel allowed three of its journalists to spend nearly two years in a Cairo prison before mobilising Qatar and its allies, including the United States, to gain their release. Yet not before they had been hauled up in front of an Egyptian court under false charges of spreading misinformation about national security, found guilty and given

sentences of three to four years. I was naïve not to demand some reassurances in writing that I could have given to my family before travelling to Bahrain.

Matar Matar claims there are more than 4,000 Bahrainis still in prison (The Economist puts the figure at 2,600). He says doctors were arrested and convicted of treating only Shia patients in Salmaniya Hospital and served up to seven years in prison. He has met some since their release. None, he says, has returned to the hospital, and many have been stripped of their accreditation.

It was the video shot inside the hospital “where all hell broke loose” that became some of the most wrenching and disturbing scenes in Shouting in the Dark. The next day, the Bahraini army invaded the hospital. Matar Matar accuses the state television service of “knowingly broadcasting false information that incited violence against the Shia protestors and the doctors trying to attend to those who’d been injured or attacked”.

Ten years later, there has been virtually no substantial reporting on Bahrain’s failed revolution. American media paid little attention to revisiting the Arab Spring revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, let alone the forgotten Bahrain uprising. Covid and George Floyd dominated the news. What little attention the world’s news media gave Bahrain had to do with its decision last September to join the United Arab Emirates in signing a peace treaty with Israel.

Yet Shouting in the Dark stands the test of time and reminds the world of the extraordinary bravery shown by tens of thousands of Bahrainis. It also shames Western governments and their political leaders who abandoned them.

John Owen is professor emeritus of journalism at City, University of London where he taught the post-graduate international journalism class for over 13 years. He was executive producer/programmes for the Al Jazeera English Channel in Washington and London and chairman of the Frontline Club for journalists and media. He was the head of TV news for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and CBC’s London bureau chief.

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