Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Mapping land distribution in Bahrain

We’ve got Bahrain on the brain here at Berkman today – with Mahmood’s Den blocked, we’re all interested in precisely how the Bahrani government is going to block websites and whether the set of blocked sites will grow over time. My colleague, Rob Faris, pointed me towards another Bahrani blocking issue that I’m embarrased that I missed: Bahrain’s temporary block of Google Earth.

On August 7th, Mahmood reported that Google Earth had been blocked by the Bahrani “Ministry of DISInformation”. Mahmood offered the explanation that Google Earth was blocked because it was a tool that showed the unfairness of land distribution in Bahrain and the confiscation of public lands by the ruling family:

Possibly because through Google Earth, the whole world, let alone the Bahraini users, can zoom in and have a good look at palaces and islands which a normal Bahraini wouldn’t even dream of one day coming close to, let alone stepping foot in, and the glaring confiscation of virtually all but 3% of beaches of the islands.

The block was apparently lifted within days, though there’s speculation in some quarters – Rob tells me – that the images currently available within Bahrain aren’t as high resolution as they were before the block. (I’m skeptical of this – there have been lots of rumors that Google Earth has blurred features on their maps at the request of various governments – Wikipedia has a useful overview of some of these requests. Some features in Washington DC – the Vice President’s residence, for instance, have evidently been blurred via pixelation in USGS photos. But I’m not sure Manama is powerful enough to exert this influence over Google, if South Korea isn’t…)

On September 21st, Elijah Zarwan filled us in on a possible reason Google Maps was threatening to the Bahrani government. He linked to an amazing 45 page PDF which uses imagery from Google Earth to ask uncomfortable questions about land allocation in Bahrain. Does it make sense for Bahrain to be “reclaiming” land from the ocean, when so many large pieces of land in the island nation have been granted to members of the ruling family?

I can’t speak for the accuracy of any of the claims made in the PDF, but I’m fascinated by how useful a tool this can be for land rights activists. Groups like AAAS are using extensive experience with GIS tools to offer analysis like their study of Porta Farm near Harare, Zimbabwe, which studied satellite imagery to demonstrate the effects of the Mugabe government’s Operation Murambatsvina. But this deck is evidence that a user without special GIS expertise can use these tools and technology to make a powerful political argument.

For any of my readers in Bahrain – was Google Earth blocked again after the early August incident? And has this PDF document gotten any attention in the mainstream Bahrani media?

5 Responses to “Mapping land distribution in Bahrain”

  1. quixote says:

    Fascinating. Also shows just how important it is to keep the internet free and open in all countries.

  2. Hi Ethan, thanks again for your support. I think without international pressure, as well as concerted effort by sympathisers here, no site would get unblocked once it gets noticed by someone in a position to dictate to the rest of the country his own myopic viewpoint. Thankfully, we have a few who could poke those eyes out and let light in!

    The same happened for Google Earth, once it was blocked, we made a concerted effort to show all people in Bahrain not only how to unblock Google Earth, but also how to unblock ANY site on the internet, that is why I am doubly surprised why the Bahraini government chose to block 18 “fresh” sites (I know that another 8 are on the block by tomorrow, with a possible reduction of just one, but that’s another story.)

    Since Google Earth was unblocked; however, it wasn’t blocked or molested again.

    I can vouch for the accuracy of the pdf file, and can also tell you that no obfuscation of features nor was the resolution offered lowered to achieve the unblocking.

    Thanks for bringing the attention of the world to this tiny collection of islands, your efforts have not gone in vain.

    –mahmood

  3. Censors Suck says:

    By the way, the pdf file is very very authentic, I am an expat living in Bahrain and yes, the depiction is file is very very true.
    http://elijahzarwan.net/blog/wp-content/BahrainandGoogleEarth.pdf
    You can download this in bahrain though.

  4. ???? says:

    Thanks for bringing the attention of the world to this tiny collection of islands, your efforts have not gone in vain

  5. Home Oxygen says:

    the pdf file is very very authentic, I am an expat living in Bahrain and yes

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