Freedom of Expression
Kuwait’s first mass printed newspaper was titled “The Journal of Kuwait” and published in 1928. A handful of other publications emerged during the 1950s, alongside the introduction of limited radio and television broadcasting, but the Kuwaiti media environment only began to develop significantly after the country’s 1961 declaration of independence, which marked the country’s shift from British protectorate to a fully independent nation.
Kuwait’s full independence led to the roll-out of an updated communications infrastructure and the establishment of a national television broadcasting service in November 1961, with programmes in black and white for four hours a day that soon gained popularity across the Gulf. The government also established a national radio channel that broadcasted content in Arabic, English, Persian, and Urdu. 1961 is also considered the year of the birth of print journalism in Kuwait, with the daily publication Al-Rai. In comparison to the specialised publications that had come before it, Al Rai’s content and style were closer to a modern newspaper’s standards.
As with other Gulf states, huge increases in oil revenues in the 1970s led to significant investments in media and communication technology. During this decade, Kuwait became the second Middle Eastern country to have its own Earth satellite station, broadcasting hours were expanded, and colour television was introduced in 1974. Press regulations increased with the 1979 Press and Publications Law, entrusting a government body with supervising the press, however privately-owned newspapers quickly began to dominate the market, at the expense of state-owned publications.
Kuwait’s telecommunication infrastructure, in particular its radio networks, was severely damaged by the Iraqi invasion in August 1990, but facilities were quickly repaired. Following the end of the Gulf War in 1991, Kuwait launched its own satellite network, the Kuwaiti Space Network, albeit with limited transmission range. During the 1990s, satellite television became more popular than the Kuwaiti government’s television channels among domestic audiences, a phenomenon that was acknowledged by the then Information Minister, who stressed that national Kuwaiti television would have to offer more “competitive” content.
Kuwait was something of a pioneer among the Gulf states in terms of Internet connectivity. The (Saudi-owned) Gulfnet internet service was first established in the country in 1991. Kuwait then became the first Middle Eastern state to grant free access to the internet to students of Kuwait University (which was Gulfnet’s first customer), and by 2003 the country’s online penetration already stood at 10 percent. In 2016, around three quarters of the country had regular access to the internet, a figure now surpassed by several of its Gulf rivals.
Kuwait’s most recent version of the Press and Publications Law was redrafted in 2006, continuing to regulate the content and volume of the country’s print industry. It forbids any criticism of Islam and the prophet, as well as the emir. The law didn’t prevent Kuwait’s print media environment to expand the following year with the licensing of six new Arabic daily publications, the first important expansion in 30 years.
Freedom of Expression
Kuwait has a relatively open media environment in comparison to its Gulf neighbours, and is ranked highest of all the Gulf states in the Reporters Without Borders 2016 World Press Freedom Index.
However, its ranking of 103 (out of 179) indicates that Kuwaiti journalists face restrictions on their reporting and that negative portrayals of certain subjects, such as Islam or the ruling family, remain off-limits.
Article 37 of the Kuwaiti constitution, redrafted in 1992, states that the freedom of the press is “guaranteed”, but “subject to the stipulations and provisions prescribed by law”. As such the constitution is secondary in importance to the penal code and the Press and Publications Law, which prohibits the publication of information that criticises Islam or the Emir, is deemed immoral or seen as provoking dissension among the populace.
In recent years, the Kuwaiti government has enacted further legislation to curb freedom of expression, including the 2012 National Unity Law, which criminalises the publication of content deemed offensive to a particular sect or group, and the 2015 Cybercrime Law, which extends the prohibitive regulations of the Press and Publications Law to online publications and social media. The cumulative result is a complex system of laws and regulations that can render many journalistic practices illegal at will, including seemingly innocuous activities such as quoting the Emir without official permission, an offence that can be punishable of jail time.
In a manner similar to other Gulf states, the Kuwaiti government has intensified its clampdown on dissident voices following the Arab uprisings of 2011. In 2012, a new television channel, El-Nahg, believed to be affiliated with opposition members of the Kuwaiti parliament which had just been dissolved, was shut down a day after its launch. Later that year, Al-Youm, another television channel with links to the Kuwaiti opposition, was closed by the government for “administrative” reasons, although the channel’s lawyer later claimed the closure to be “politically motivated”. The clampdown on outspoken media outlets also extended to the press. In 2014, the newspaper Alam al-Youm was initially suspended and subsequently closed down after breaking an imposed media blackout on an alleged government coup plot. In 2015, the newspaper Al-Watan was shut down with Kuwaiti authorities citing “financial difficulties”. However the newspaper, which had traditionally supported the government, had adopted an increasingly critical tone towards the authorities in recent years.
Individual journalists and online commentators have also encountered increasing government repression, particularly for their posts on social media. In January 2013, the blogger Rashid al-Anzi and journalist Ayyad al-Harbi were both sentenced a few days apart in separate cases to two years imprisonment for “criticising the rights and powers” of the ruling family via Twitter. In the past, Kuwait has handed out even lengthier sentences to bloggers, such as the 10-year prison sentence administered to Hamad al-Naqi in 2012 for insulting the Prophet Muhammad on his blog, and the sentence of the same length issued to Lawrence al-Rasheed for undermining the Kuwaiti Emir in a poem. In 2015, journalist and blogger Hamid Buyabes was given a four-year prison term for criticizing Saudi Arabia via his Twitter account.
The domestic Kuwaiti television environment consists of state-owned and private networks. State television fully adopted satellite broadcasting in 1992. Some of the most notable channels are as follows:
Until 2005, there were no private radio stations in Kuwait . The Kuwaiti government provides nine stations that cater for the diverse Kuwaiti population. These include stations airing modern western and Kuwaiti music (Super Station) religious content (Al-Qur’an al-Karim), traditional Arabic music (Al-Ghana al-Arabi al-Qadim,, Al-Sha’biya), and news and educational broadcasting (Kuwait FM).
Marina FM was the country’s first private station. It was established in Kuwait in 2005, named after the shopping centre that serves as its broadcast headquarters. The station mainly airs music and entertainment. Other private radio stations have since emerged, and the majority either focus on music and entertainment programming or content aimed at Kuwait’s expat communities, broadcasting in English, Malayalam, and Hindi.
The Kuwaiti press is dominated by private publications, however the government maintains control by ensuring that all print publications must register and obtain a license from the Ministry of Information. Licenses can then be revoked without a court order or any explanation, while the establishment of a newspaper requires capital of almost $900,000. The most popular Kuwaiti newspapers are as follows:
Table 1. Most popular newspapers by daily circulation (2015). Source: INJAZ Kuwait.
Facebook is the most popular social media platform in Kuwait. The country reportedly had the most Twitter users per capita worldwide between 2010 and 2012, however usership is likely to decline in the future in light of several high profile arrests of users. A survey by the Kuwait News Agency in 2016 also noted the rising popularity of instant messaging applications such as Whatsapp and Snapchat. However, the Kuwaiti government has shown that sharing unsanctioned content on such platforms can also lead to prosecution. In 2016, three members of the Kuwaiti royal family were jailed for five years after insulting the Kuwaiti Emir via messages sent in a private Whatsapp conversation.
Online media outlets have grown increasingly popular in proportion with the Internet growth in Kuwait. Yet the Kuwaiti government maintains the right to close down or block websites that are considered to be “inciting terrorism and instability.” Internet service providers operating in the country are legally required to install systems that filter out websites deemed by the government to be un-Islamic, extremist, or promoting certain political ideas.