Jail 'for an opinion': fears grow for Kuwait media freedom

Jail 'for an opinion': fears grow for Kuwait media freedom
A draft law which aims to make illegal any criticism of top officials in Kuwait has raised concerns in the emirate considered relatively more relaxed with freedom of expression than the rest of the Gulf.
5 min read
11 September, 2023
Manshoor's lead editor Muhammad Almutawa noted a growing wave of censorship in recent years [Getty]

A draft media law in Kuwait that threatens to outlaw criticism of top officials is causing anger in the country long considered to have the highest level of free expression in the Gulf.

The bill, proposed by the information ministry, has been condemned by lawmakers as a "violation of democracy" and an attempt to "silence and intimidate" the public.

"There should be no prison sentence for an opinion," parliamentarian Saud Alasfoor posted on X.

Translation: Believing in the importance of defending freedoms... In compliance with what we promised the Kuwaiti people... In line with the principles we believe in... I signed the #Freedoms_Document prepared by some activist brothers and sisters.

Kuwait, one of the world's biggest oil producers, has a lively political scene by the standards of the conservative region, where debate is mostly kept under tight control by its royal families.

Although it has the Gulf's most active parliament, Kuwait has also endured years of political deadlock as lawmakers constantly clash with the cabinet - appointed by the ruling Al-Sabah family - often resulting in parliaments being dissolved.

The draft law, first reported last month by Kuwaiti newspapers, introduces a raft of new restrictions including outlawing criticism of the crown prince, Sheikh Meshal al-Ahmad al-Jaber Al-Sabah. Current regulations only protect the emir.

Translation: Circulated news: A new draft law to regulate media in Kuwait. Prohibiting criticism of the Crown Prince of Prince Deputy.

Sheikh Meshal has effectively taken the reins in the small emirate ever since the ageing emir delegated some constitutional authorities to him in November 2021.

The bill has yet to be presented to parliament but, if passed, would restrict criticism of a political elite often accused of corruption and mismanagement by Kuwait's vocal civil society.

Numerous journalists, politicians and activists have been jailed in past years for insulting the emir.

Kuwaiti government officials declined to comment on the bill or its contents when approached by AFP.

"Kuwaitis have a proud history of assembly and freedom of expression," said Bader al-Saif, assistant professor of history at Kuwait University.

"Kuwaiti policymakers are best served to protect and enhance those rights instead of limiting them," he said, arguing that media "restrictions are futile".


'Stop deterring journalists'

Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranks Kuwait 154th out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index.

While it places higher than most other Gulf countries, the draft law, if passed, would be a blow to media freedom, said Jonathan Dagher, head of the Middle East desk at RSF.

"We ask that authorities stop deterring journalists with legal proceedings... and prevent any infringement upon the work and liberty of journalists," Dagher told AFP.

Most at risk are independent outlets such as Manshoor, a digital magazine founded in Kuwait 10 years ago with the aim of setting a new standard for independent Gulf journalism.

Tackling taboo stories on sexual violence and women's and migrant workers' rights, it serves as a rare addition to the Gulf press landscape, dominated by the media arms of oil-rich monarchies such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

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"New independent media outlets such as Manshoor have played an important role in elevating the level of public discourse and promoting a new standard of journalism," Dagher said.

"Such media outlets are rare in the region, and their work should be protected."

Recent articles by Manshoor tackled the lack of police support for female victims of sexual violence, and the risk of road accident facing food delivery drivers.

One story questioned the Kuwait government about its progress on renewable energy, as climate change makes one of the world's warmest countries even hotter.


'Freedom to think'

Governments in the wider Middle East and North Africa, including Egypt and Morocco, have restricted press freedoms since the Arab Spring protests of 2011.

Cairo's Mada Masr and Casablanca's Le Desk are among the independent outlets fighting for survival.

But Gulf Arab states, where monarchies have instead leveraged their massive investment capital to create media giants, lack strong traditions of independent journalism.

"Compared to neighbouring countries, we have more freedom," said Mohammad Almutawa, Manshoor's lead editor, although he noted a growing wave of censorship in recent years.

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The 34-year-old former blogger spoke from a small office space where journalists search for stories often ignored by traditional outlets.

Manshoor plays with "red lines while trying not to cross them completely," Almutawa said.

"We try to maintain impartiality and objectivity" and give audiences "the freedom to think and make their own decisions", Almutawa added.

Yasmine Almulla, a 28-year-old journalist who has worked with Manshoor for the past two years, said "it's a little easier for us" compared to the rest of the Gulf. But she also highlighted shrinking press freedoms.

"We live in a region where freedom of expression and opinion continue to decline, so it's very difficult to have independent journalism," Almulla said.

"No one covers the other Gulf countries as they should be covered."