Just 5km from the gleaming centre of Manama, in Bahrain, a local journalist in a rusted, old compact car swerves around rubbish bins set on fire to deter police cruisers from entering the impoverished, restive Shiite neighbourhoods.

The car stops at a café near a small group of protesters, the embers in Bahrain of the Middle East uprisings known as the Arab spring. The discontent is rarely reported on the local television or radio channels, which are all state-owned, or in the four major daily newspapers, all but one of which are aligned with the Sunni ruling family.

Customers enter the café rubbing their eyes and complaining about another night of tear gas. In a corner, a small group of demoralised Bahraini journalists who are no longer able to safely practise their craft gather to commiserate and pass updates about colleagues in prison or exile.

Reading through the newspapers, former sports reporter Faisal Hayat, 41, takes note of three legal cases against the news media. One is his, a 2007 defamation lawsuit brought against him by a former sports minister. Hayat says it is a nuisance suit to ruin him financially. Then there are charges against a newspaper editor filed by the Ministry of Information. Finally, there is the three-year sentence of blogger and activist Zainab al-Khawaja, aka Angry Arabiya, in part for tearing up a picture of the king in public.

"Three cases in one day?" Hayat says, shaking his head. "This did not happen before 2011."

On February 14, 2011, the full force of the Arab spring reached this tiny Persian Gulf island nation of 1.4 million, which is roughly the size of Hong Kong's New Territories (excluding the islands) and home to the United States Navy's Fifth Fleet. The revolution had begun in Tunisia several months earlier and spread eastwards through 12 countries, forcing out several authoritarian regimes and shaking the confidence of those that held on.

The Arab spring was supposed to usher in an era of greater political inclusion and freedom, including that of the press. Instead, in every country but Tunisia, it has led to the opposite: the near-disappearance of independent news and opinion, especially about governments and their security forces.

Four years after the revolution was swiftly crushed in Bahrain, independent journalists here can no longer safely take a notebook or camera to cover the continuing, if smaller, protests. They cannot safely write critically about elections, document discrimination against the majority Shiite population or report about the journalists and political activists still sitting in prison, according to interviews in December with a dozen journalists here and in exile, and other experts, US officials and reports. Most of the Bahraini journalists spoke anonymously for fear of retribution.

They are afraid to speak publicly about the ever-tightening restrictions on news and information for fear the government will take away their credentials, passports or citizenship, or put them in prison.

"People are very nervous," one journalist whispers in an interview, although no-one else is in the room and the door is closed.

Their fears are well substantiated by human rights investigators, including those of the US State Department, whose report on Bahrain this year was blunt: "The most serious human rights problems included citizens' limited ability to change their government peacefully; arrest and detention of protesters (some of whom were violent) on vague charges, occasionally leading to their torture and mistreatment in detention; and lack of due process in trials of political and human rights activists, students and journalists, including harsh sentences."

Frank La Rue, a former United Nations' special rapporteur on freedom of expression, says things have become worse.

"Arbitrary detention is their main way of dealing with dissent," he says, adding that Bahrain always denied his requests to visit on behalf of the UN.

In response to questions for this article, the Bahraini embassy in Washington said, "Bahrain's media are entirely free to report on issues that take place in the country.

"However, what will not be tolerated in any society is the abuse of public outlets to incite and provoke individuals towards hatred and violence. Moreover, the country lies in a volatile region, and the government has a duty to its citizens as well as its allies to provide a stable and safe environment, and to deter those exploiting the sensitive environment to achieve personal objectives."

By the time the Arab spring took hold in Bahrain, the gulf monarchies had learned lessons from the regime-toppling revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Social media and 24-hour international news coverage had helped propel the demand for democracy and had given demonstrators moral support. The surge in the streets proved uncontrollable.

So, as soon as peaceful demonstrations began in Manama, Saudi Arabia - Bahrain's wealthy Sunni patron - sent in 1,000 troops, and other gulf nations contributed police to contain the crowds, which were demanding political freedom and an end to discrimination against the majority Shiite population.

Hundreds were arrested and scores killed. The sole opposition newspaper was temporarily shut down and one of its co-founders, Abdul Karim Fakhrawi, was arrested and tortured to death in custody, according to the US State Department.

A small group of lanky, young freelance photojournalists, many of whom sold their photos through the popular London-based photo agency Demotix, became the only link to the outside world.

"Only those of us who could run fast" stayed with it, says one of them, who has asked not to be identified.

Their work was splashed on front pages around the world, with their names attached, which made them instant targets for police even as they were winning international accolades and awards. One by one they were charged, judged and sentenced to years in prison, mostly for participating in illegal gatherings and inciting hatred toward the monarchy. Several were accused of participating in violence, which they denied. Eight photographers remain behind bars.

During the uprising, protesters in Bahrain sometimes organised themselves by occupation; health-care workers, athletes and coaches, the media. Hayat, a father of four, was a popular television sports commentator. He supported the demonstrators' demands. After watching his beloved athletes being beaten by police, he joined a media march where he raised his fist and held a sign that read: "Free Free Press".

His image was splashed on state television, which called him a traitor.

Three days later, he was summoned to the police station and questioned about participating in illegal gatherings and inciting hatred toward the regime. His arrest shocked many, including Gianni Merlo, the Italian president of the International Sports Press Association, who urged Bahrain to release him. "We will always be on the side of journalists who are fighting to defend their rights and freedom," he said after Hayat's arrest.

While in custody, Hayat says he was bound in painful positions and beaten with cables and hoses on his back, in between his legs and on his hands. His captors were intent on not just physical abuse but in breaking him emotionally, he says. They stuffed him into a rubbish bin. They forced him to clean overflowing toilets. They screamed insults about his family and his Shiite beliefs. He says he also was groped and threatened with rape.

On his 85th day in captivity, he was freed.

"In my deep heart, I hurt," says Hayat, struggling in English with the help of a translation app on his smartphone. "I feel like I don't have dignity."

Hayat wants to go back to work as a sports journalist but no one in Bahrain, or in any other gulf country, will hire him. Arab reporters fired from their jobs are often blacklisted from working in other Persian Gulf countries, under a regional security pact agreed to in 2012 to counter terrorism and instability, according to local journalists.

Many Bahraini journalists who were supportive of the protests or wrote about the uprising for foreign media outlets temporarily lost their official credentials. Without them, they are not permitted to cover official events, which means they can no longer work. Those who didn't leave the country changed professions, accepted jobs writing news releases or went underground, hiding in the cyber-darkness.

"Twitter is the only way to spread news, to express your anger, and doing that you can end up in jail," says a long-time reporter who tries to stay safe by leaving the country periodically. But cyberspace is no longer a refuge. Dozens of bloggers have been arrested and sentenced for tweets deemed insulting to the king or as incitement to protest.

When Saudi troops entered Bahrain, the move inflamed the Sunni-Shiite divide that has existed for centuries. The incursion outraged the Shiite population in Saudi's oil-rich Eastern Province, who shared the anger of their Shiite brethren in Bahrain at discrimination from ruling Sunnis. Despite strict bans on anti-government rallies, the Shiite people in the Saudi province poured into the streets to protest.

Jassim al-Safer, then 26, was a freelance photographer for Awamphoto, an agency that sells photos of traditional and religious ceremonies. In the spring of 2011, he began documenting protests in Awamiyah, his home town in the Eastern Province, says his cousin, Mahdi al-Zahir, in a Skype interview from Saudi Arabia. Like most people living in Awamiyah, al-Safer supported the protesters. He communicated with foreign journalists via social media because authorities banned access to the area. He guided one of them to a protest, his cousin says.

Al-Safer also worked as a supervisor at Nesma, a conglomerate, ensuring foreign workers were doing their work correctly and on time.

The air was heavy in Awamiyah on the morning of July 8, 2011. Temperatures were nearing 40 degrees Celsius just after sunrise and it hadn't rained in weeks. Al-Safer was awakened by a call from his Nesma manager saying he was needed immediately.

As he drove into the company car park, he saw two police cars waiting at the gate. He was put into an ambulance and driven 100km north, to Jubail Police Station.

That same morning, six other Awamphoto photographers were called into their workplaces where they, too, were arrested and then put in jail.

Al-Safer ended up in solitary confinement at the General Investigation Directorate prison in Dammam, the largest city in the Eastern Province. He told his cousin he was visited only every other week by guards who would interrogate and beat him and deprive him of sleep.

Six months after he arrived at Dammam, al-Safer's family, which had been searching for him, finally found him, al-Zahir says.

During a visit by his cousin, al-Safer lifted up his shirt.

"He told me, 'The marks from torture are on my back still, but you cannot tell my father or mother. They will feel sorry for me. They will cry,'" al-Zahir says.

Al-Safer was tried by a judge in the special national security and terrorism court. He was charged with "creating a terrorist cell", "posting photos and videos on YouTube that could discredit the kingdom" and "meeting with foreign reporters". He was sentenced to seven years in prison and banned from international travel for an additional seven years.

Following the Arab spring, Saudi laws to deter independent news reporting were tightened further and penalties increased. A vaguely worded 2013 law against terrorism, which defines it as "any act … intended to disturb the public order of the state … or insult the reputation of the state or its position", is being used to arrest bloggers.

The Saudi embassy in Washington declined a request for comment.

The internet and social media sites were the Arab spring's oxygen. Activists and journalists - often it was hard to tell the difference - used the tools of their generation to get around the forces of the old guard. Their effectiveness stunned the security establishment.

But the old guard has caught up technologically, thanks to Western companies willing to sell them modern surveillance training and technology.

Egypt is implementing a Social Networks Security Hazard Monitoring Project that allows for keyword searching and trend analysis of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Google, Viper, WhatsApp and other sites. At any time, a minimum of 30 analysts will monitor huge streams of data in both classical and colloquial Arabic, according to a 2014 Interior Ministry request-for-proposals leaked to the Egyptian media.

In Bahrain, a new Cyber Safety Directorate monitors websites and social media for "threats to national unity". Saudi's anti-cyber-crime law calls for imprisoning anyone who uses the internet or computers for "material impinging on public order, religious values, public morals and privacy".

Saudi blogger and author Raif Badawi, 31, was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes in 2012 for "insulting Islam through electronic channels". He ran the Liberal Saudi Network, a forum to debate religion and politics.

His first 50 lashes of the whip were delivered in a public square in January and surreptitiously recorded by a bystander with a cellphone. International outrage pushed Saudi authorities to review Badawi's case.

In June, the judge affirmed his sentence.

Of all the Middle East countries rattled by the Arab spring, Egypt has been the hardest on journalists trying to follow events. At least 10 have been killed and dozens beaten by security forces or surrogate militias trying to disperse crowds and limit international coverage of the historic demonstrations. Among those who lost their lives is Mick Deane, 61, a cameraman for Sky News. He was shot by security forces in August 2013 as they tried to clear demonstrators in Cairo.

After strongman Hosni Mubarak was forced out, independent media flourished for about 18 months.

Censorship, arrests and harassment began to reappear after Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Mursi was elected president. Some of the 600 newspapers in the country turned into propaganda outlets.

The July 2013 military coup, which installed General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, banned the Muslim Brotherhood's newspapers, radio stations and television broadcasts and imprisoned its journalists. The new military government has forced the media back to its martial-law days, with a notable twist: last October, a group of editors said they would limit their criticism of state institutions, including the military, for the sake of stability.

One publication has been an exception. Lina Attalah, the chief editor of Mada Masr, says her online English and Arabic news outlet still tries to cover everything. When asked if she ever censors herself, she takes a minute to answer.

"You have to be political," she responds. "A lot of times negotiating, thinking and rethinking headlines … We have to go through [it] in order to continue existing."

Asked to elaborate, she says, "It would be too exposing to give some examples." If an article was critical of the regime, she says, Mada Masr might tone down its headline, so it would gain less attention. "We try to utilise these gaps in order not to compromise on the actual content."

To be a journalist in Bahrain today means being so afraid of angering the authorities that when censors at the Information Affairs Authority call up to demand that one word be changed in a headline, it is changed.

"Someone called - and it just vanished," explains a journalist in Manama who can't be named, who works for a publication that can't be described, whose editors changed one word which can't be revealed, all for fear of government retaliation.

Being a journalist in Bahrain who can't find a job as an independent reporter, such as Hayat, means resorting to satirical monologues and posting them on YouTube. Hayat's sketches are called "What's Up" in Arabic. He wraps humour around subtle criticism of the government. Sometimes, it's not so subtle, like the episode he had just finished taping when he was interviewed.

"I'm a little bit worried about this episode," he says, seated in the café, waving from time to time to fans who recognise him.

In the episode in question, Hayat jokes about recent election results. He shows a video clip of police scaling the wall of a house and repeats the government's assertion that police first ask permission to enter a home. "See how they ask permission to come in?"

The episode has almost 10,000 views.

"Sometimes when I go out of the house, I expect anything to happen; a car accident, or someone will shoot me," he says. But he continues to go out, to meet with friends, to make and post his videos.

"Something inside of me changed" after imprisonment, he says. "I have rights and I will keep struggling for my rights until something changes."

The Washington Post

Additional reporting by Idrees Ali and Courtney Mabeus.