Kuwait: Electronic Frontiers

WORLDWIDE ATTENTION: Reporters Without Borders currently ranks Kuwait 103 out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom globally. Many had expected Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber Al Mubarak Al Sabah (below) to discard laws restricting freedom of expression back in 2013, something that is yet to materialize.

Kuwait’s new electronic media law has draconian elements aimed at curbing freedom of speech, say online journalists

BY Abdullah Al Elyan

Online media outlets in Kuwait, especially news organizations, eagerly await details of the country’s recently passed Electronic Media Law (EML), which they plan to contest before the Supreme Constitutional Court.

They believe the law, which was passed by parliament in January 2016, breaches the freedom of speech and information, both of which are protected by Kuwait’s Constitution.

Many in the online news industry—owners and journalists alike—told Newsweek Middle East that they see the EML as repressive and spoke of their plans to relaunch their websites from other Arab or Gulf states, should Kuwait proceed with executing the law.

“The government’s media supervision is nothing short of being repressive against those who oppose it. In that context, the new law is unwelcome,” says Mubarak Al Shammari, editor-in-chief of the website Fernas.

Shammari adds that this won’t be the first time the government has pursued members of the media; in the past it has gone after bloggers, social media activists and reporters so a precedent already exists.
In 2010, the trial of blogger and journalist Mohammed Abdul Qadir Al Jassem, who allegedly criticized the country’s ruler, was slammed by Washington, with the State Department expressing concern over Kuwait’s monitoring of bloggers and journalists.

Back then, Jassem—who is also a lawyer, a human rights activist, the former editor-in-chief of Newsweek’s Arabic edition, and the former editor of Foreign Policy’s Arabic edition—was questioned without the presence of his lawyer. He was also accused of harming Kuwait’s national interests and sentenced to a year in jail as a result.

In 2015, Kuwait suspended several media outlets under its 2006 press law, including the Arabic newspapers Alam Al Youm and Al Watan. Both papers refused to comply with official orders calling for a media blackout on news related to an alleged attempted coup in Kuwait in March 2015.

The government had stripped Alam Al Youm’s owner of his Kuwaiti citizenship, which restricts him from owning or running an online media outlet under EML, along with banning him from owning a traditional media outlet under the 2006 press law, which entitles only Kuwaiti citizens to own such outlets.

The watchdog, Reporters Without Borders, currently ranks Kuwait 103 out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom worldwide, a rank that has dropped 13 positions from 2014.

Though the new law “recognizes e-papers and electronic news providers as media outlets, and equates them with traditional media outlets,” as Member of the Parliament, Rakan Al Nisf tells Newsweek Middle East, it has imposed new regulations that online media outlets refuse to accept.

According to the law, the country’s penal court has the jurisdiction over crimes committed by media outlets and in order to be licensed, an electronic media outlet has to provide a KWD 5,000 ($16,586) financial guarantee. This bank guarantee doubles should the e-media outlet be an audio visual one.
Earlier, Kuwait’s civil courts handled media-related cases, and online media required neither a permit nor financial guarantees.

Since it does not cost much to start an online news service, the new bank guarantee would add a financial burden on current online news providers.

“Large financial guarantees may lead the youth who wish to start a news site to be recruited by local or foreign individuals or entities for ulterior motives,” says Mohammed Al Aradah, editor-in-chief of the website Alerada and secretary general of Kuwait’s Electronic Media Union (KEMU).
Moreover, those who wish to open an online news outlet must be Kuwaiti nationals, over the age of 21 and possess a high school diploma.

Interestingly enough, many of those who own or operate an online news portal are from the Bidoon —i.e. undocumented citizens—who, under the new law, would not be entitled to get a permit to run such outlets.

According to some online news providers who spoke with Newsweek Middle East, the country may move to close down media outlets that publish Kuwaiti opposition statements, by not granting them permits or revoking their existing permits under the new law.

“Article 11 of the new law leaves the door wide open for the minister of information to revoke or deny granting any permit, without having to provide a reason for his decision,” says Faisal Al Sawagh, editor in chief of the online portal Dasman News and head of KEMU.

“Prior to the endorsement of EML, we met with the parliament’s relevant committees, and presented them with an amendment to this article, but were surprised to see the law pass without any amendments,” he tells Newsweek Middle East.

The new law also bans social media and electronic media outlets from reporting on any agreement signed by Kuwait until it has been published in the state’s weekly official gazette, or after these media outlets have received a prior official permission from the relevant authorities to publish such news. This, online media outlets say, is another form of restriction as it prevents them from breaking news to their subscribers.

Publisher of Derwaza News, Salah Al Elaj is one of the many online journalists who is harsh in his criticism of this particular section of the law.

“Imagine if Kuwait were to sign an arms deal with France, and the French and Bahraini media outlets published the news [whereas] we, in Kuwait, will not be allowed to publish [it] unless we send an official request to the relevant authorities, or wait for it to be published in the official gazette. As Kuwaiti citizens, we should have the upper hand in publishing our news before foreign media outlets,” he says.
Such regulations “contradict international treaties signed by Kuwait and restrict freedoms protected by Kuwait’s constitution especially in its articles 30, 36 and 37, which safeguard the freedom of speech,” and journalists’ right to publish news, says Mohammed Nahar, the general coordinator of Kuwait Progressive Movement (KPM).

Freedom of the press and of speech are protected under Kuwait’s Constitution, but only in accordance with “the conditions defined by law.”

Although the Press and Publications Law also protects the media, it bans publishing any material that insults God, the prophets, religion and criticism of the country’s ruler. It further prohibits any call to change the regime.

According to Nisf, there is legitimate fear when it comes to “certain vague and elastic phrases in the penal codes endorsed by [the] EML.”

The law, for example, penalizes any attempt to “disdain the constitution,” so the authorities may label any call to amend the constitution a crime, he says.

The law, according to KPM’s Nahar, criminalizes “threatening the stability of the country, or its security or national security… This is such a loose term which can be applied to any person who opposes the government or one of its authorities.”

But not all reporters see the new law as a tool of oppression.

Journalist Aref Al Mishaan, who is also a news provider, says the EML will add a lot to Kuwait’s online media.

“In the past, the sector was governed by chaos, and it was so random that we had many news outlets without knowing who stood behind them, who actually runs them and what their goals were,” he says.
He believes the new law will “definitely” contribute to the evolution of online media, “especially since the EML ensures that the government supports and allows online reporters to access state institutions such as the parliament, a matter which was restricted to print and televised media in the past.”

But with new harsh measures adopted against those breaching the new law, with jail terms reaching five years, and fines as high as KWD 10,000, Nahar sees the new law as “part of a series of regulations that the country has passed with the aim of curbing freedoms and dragging Kuwait back to a pre-constitution era.”

All of the restrictions have led to “tightening the margin of freedoms in Kuwait,” says Nahar, adding that social media “is the only available tool” for many people who wish to express their views.

Nisf and Mishaan, however, believe the new law helps protect individuals and institutions from online media outlets which spread rumors, and are used as means to attack people.

“If a journalist or media outlet spreads a rumor which harms another person or entity, then they are penalized by law. The same goes for online media. This is not a restriction, but rather regulatory for the common good,” says Mishaan.

“I wonder why Kuwait fears the media,” says Shammari, while he waits, like other journalists for EML’s executive list to be published to understand the full limits of their freedom of expression.

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