Still no comment from reality TV actress/mogul Kim Kardashian on her controversial visit last week to Bahrain and subsequent Twitter public relations campaign for arguably one of the world’s most oppressive regimes. Regardless of her knowledge (or lack thereof) of the politics surrounding the Middle Eastern kingdom, when one has Kardashian’s Twitter following of 16.7 million people, the ‘I didn’t know I was doing PR for dictators’ excuse is unacceptable.
Kardashian was in Bahrain to open and generate publicity for a Millions of Milkshakes restaurant chain, and spent the day lauding Bahrain online:
[Note: the first tweet has since been erased from Kardashian’s Twitter timeline, but only after it already went out to her 16.7 million followers. Hacktivists with the internet collective Anonymous assisted in recovering the erased tweet. ]
“Given this ugly contemporary reality, when Kardashian said she was ‘in love with’ Bahrain and lauded its ‘amazing hospitality,’ she was either vapidly insensitive to the plight of those being persecuted in the country or a willing dupe of a government eager for people to forget its repression,” says Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of the international human rights organization, Human Rights Watch, that has long been investigating and exposing abuse in the country.
The ugly reality is that on the tiny island in the Persian Gulf, which is home to the United States Fifth Fleet Naval Base, the ruling Al-Khalifa family has been arresting and torturing doctors, journalists, and even school children in a brutal crackdown. During the peak of the revolution in February 2011, the Bahraini military shot and killed unarmed protesters in broad daylight (video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nI02Z8B1dw&bpctr=1355097450 ). There has been much dissent in the Kingdom over the past two years. It is estimated that 60% of population wants the ruling royal family out, but all forms of protest in the country have since been banned.
This year Reporters Without Borders named Bahrain an “enemy of the Internet” for the regime’s intense crackdown on bloggers and journalists. Bahrain Journalist Karim Fakwari, founder of an opposition newspaper, was murdered by Bahrain’s security forces. His body bore signs of torture. The regime has been suffocating civilians with the relentless use of tear gas. As part of an ongoing campagn to intimidate the population into submission, authorities have been throwing gas canisters into cars and homes late at night. Forces have also been maiming protesters and civilians with birdshot. On Monday, two days after Kardashian’s visit, a Bahraini boy was shot in the face by Bahraini security forces with a burst of birdshot (WARNING: GRAPHIC PHOTO).
“Bahrain had Arab Spring protests like Egypt or Tunisia, but instead of the government changing, the government hung tight and cracked down,” Roth says. “Among its abuses: protest leaders and and human rights activists have been handed long prison terms for ‘crimes’ of free expression and peaceful assembly and many protesters were detained and tortured. Some were killed. Hardly anyone has been held accountable for these crimes.”
Part of the reason the ruling Bahraini regime has got away for decades with the brutal treatment of its population is because the United States Government, media organizations, and influential individuals have been turning their heads the other way when it comes to the abuses of power.
After witnessing Kardashian jovially pour milkshakes for flashing cameras and screaming fans in Bahrain, one might think the situation in the country is just fine. And that’s exactly what the regime wants. Kardashian’s presence gave Bahrain’s dictators legitimacy. Oppressive leaders worldwide have long been using celebrities to project an appearance of normalcy to the outside world.
“One of the most important ways to protect human rights is to tarnish the reputation of leaders who repress their people. If a celebrity visitor helps a repressive leader buff his image, that makes it harder to end that repression,” Roth says.
In a video of Kardashian’s visit which was posted on Youtube, the “reality” star states: “It’s so beautiful here … everyone from the states has to come and visit.”
Well Kim, I would be thrilled if I was even allowed to return to Bahrain. I was last in the country in April 2011 while working as an investigative correspondent for CNN. After witnessing human rights atrocities, my crew and I were violently detained at machine gunpoint by Bahraini security forces and later brought to jail. The regime tried to cover up the crimes by erasing all the video they found. We were able to sneak the most damning evidence out of the country after we were released. After exposing the crimes on CNN, the regime now has me blacklisted from entering the country along with dozens of journalists including Nick Kristof of The New York Times:
While Kardashian was busy pouring milkshakes, myself, Kristof, and numerous international journalists and representatives of human rights organizations have been desperately trying to get back into the country to fulfill our duty as watchdogs and document the oppression, but the regime has put up a brick wall, denying the majority of us visas for over a year now, trying to keep witnesses as far away from their crimes as possible.
“Bahrain has become a place where access for human rights researchers and journalists has become extremely restrictive,” Roth said. “Since April 2011, Human Rights Watch has been allowed to make only two short visits of less than a week.”
Kardashian has not disclosed whether she was paid to tweet positively about Bahrain, nor has she apologized for the visit, but she did tweet a thanks to businessman Sheeraz Hassan for an “amazing trip to the Kingdom of Bahrain.” Hasan describes himself on Twitter as someone who “has the authority to bring deals and investment opportunities from around the world to present directly to the Royal Families of Qatar and Bahrain” and posted this picture earlier thanking the Royal Family of Bahrain for delivering a pair of Rolex Watches to his plane:
Whether paid or not, those blessed with a public platform have a responsibility to research the human rights records of the countries they are invited to visit in order to avoid complicity in giving abusive regimes international credibility.
“Celebrities should always be cautious about being used by repressive regimes and should do their homework before traveling to such countries,” Roth says. “That’s particularly true when they accept money to perform or attend events on behalf of those governments who have often use such events to try to legitimize themselves or launder their image.”
Stevie Wonder is an example of an artist that choose to use his power of celebrity ethically. Earlier this week, he pulled out of a performance at a fundraising event for the Israel Defense Force following Israel’s recent attack on Palestinians in the Gaza strip.
Similarly, earlier this year (as reported by The Atlantic) Amanda Seales, an actress and occasional MTV host, was invited to the small African nation of Equatorial Guinea for a summit. After researching the country, Seales discovered that human rights organizations describe President Teodoro Obiang’s treatment of the people as “deplorable.” Because of this, Seales refused to go to the event, saying her attendance would signal complicity. “I can’t sit on a beach knowing there’s an entire country of people that have a complete lack of resources, et cetera,” Seales told reporter Armin Rosen, “while we’re being treated like princes and princesses for the purpose of further mistreatment of the people.”
Kardashian first became famous after a sex tape with singer Ray J. Norwood leaked in 2007. On her reality show, Kardashian glamorizes a shallow life, and she has long been known for pushing products such as diet pills via social media, but promoting the fortunes of dictators is a new low. Even for her.
While in Bahrain Kardashian sent out this tweet:
Maybe that’s the root of the problem …
Former CNN reporter, Amber Lyon is a three-time Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist and photographer, and human and animal rights activist. You can find her on Twitter at @AmberLyon.
RYOT NOTE: With great power, comes great responsibility. That’s what people like Kim Kardashian sometimes don’t understand. Something as seemingly innocent as a tweet can actually help perpetuate human rights atrocities. In addition to investigate journalists like Amber, the world needs organizations to help keep people informed about atrocities all over the world. Human Rights Watch is one of the best. They’ve extensively documented the human rights abuses in Bahrain and are urging the world to take action. You can support their work by donating today, or by sharing this story.