Freedom of the Press
Media operate in a restricted environment. Journalists and social media users deemed to have insulted the emir or Saudi Arabia often face prosecution, and the government sustains efforts to stifle criticism of its actions and policies.
- In January 2015, police arrested several bloggers for allegedly insulting Saudi Arabia or its monarch.
- Also in January, authorities suspended the publishing license of the newspaper Al-Watan as well as the business license of its owner; the following month, a court upheld the suspension of the newspaper.
- In June, legislators passed a cybercrime law that includes restrictive measures for freedom of expression on the internet.
Legal Environment: 20 / 30
Freedoms of speech and the press are protected under Articles 36 and 37 of the constitution, but only “in accordance with the conditions and in the circumstances defined by law.” Although the 2006 Press and Publications Law also extends some important protections to the media, it forbids criticism of the emir, the disclosure of secret or private information, and statements calling for the overthrow of the regime. Penalties for criticizing Islam draw up to one year in prison and fines of up to 20,000 dinars ($66,000). Both the author of prohibited content and the editor of the publication may be held criminally liable for any violations. Article 25 of the criminal code penalizes public criticism of the emir, with penalties of up to five years in prison. Violations are reported frequently, as any citizen may initiate charges against an individual who they believe has committed an offense under these laws.
In June 2015, legislators passed a cybercrime law that includes restrictive measures for freedom of expression on the internet. Under Article 6 of the law, online insults of religious figures and criticism of the emir can result in prison sentences and fines. While such provisions already existed in the media and penal codes, the cybercrime law made explicit that digital media are also covered. Article 6 also bans criticism of the judicial system, statements that could damage Kuwait’s relations with other countries, and the publication of classified information. Article 7 criminalizes the urging, through information technology, “to adopt creeds that aim at destroying the basic statutes of Kuwait through illegal means.” In December, legislators debated another law to regulate online media.
The government continued to use these restrictive measures against journalists and private citizens in 2015. In January, popular blogger Mohammed al-Ajmi was arrested for posting offensive tweets about Saudi Arabia. The same month, several other bloggers were arrested for allegedly insulting the king of Saudi Arabia. In February, an appeal court increased a four-year prison sentence given to blogger Saleh al-Saeed by a lower court to a six-year sentence. Al-Saeed’s conviction stemmed from tweets in which he accused Saudi Arabia of impinging on the territorial integrity of Bahrain and Kuwait. The Court of Cassation upheld the increase of his sentence in June.
Kuwait does not have any legislation guaranteeing the right to access official information.
All publishers are required to obtain an operating license from the Ministry of Information (MOI) to launch daily newspapers, and the 2006 press law requires capital of at least 250,000 dinars ($826,000) for the establishment of a paper. However, the MOI’s regulatory power is subject to some limits—the ministry must issue a license or provide an explanation for its refusal within 90 days of application, and refusals can be appealed in court. Media licenses, once given, may not be revoked without a court order. The authorities monitor online communications for defamation and security threats, and the Ministry of Communications (MOC) blocks websites that are suspected of “inciting terrorism and instability.”
In 2014, the government adopted a law creating the Commission for Mass Communications and Information Technology to regulate digital communications in the country. The MOC oversees this new agency, which has sweeping regulatory powers over companies that provide phone, internet, cable, and satellite services. The commission may grant or revoke licenses without explanation and can direct providers to censor undesirable content that “harms public order.” The law also penalizes the communication of “immoral messages” on digital platforms with prison terms of up to two years. Critics voiced concerns that the law defines the commission’s powers in broad and vague terms, and does not provide for judicial review. The commission had not begun operating at the end of 2015.
Kuwaiti authorities have arbitrarily revoked the licenses of media outlets on several occasions in recent years. In January, the government rescinded the publishing license of the newspaper Al-Watan and the business license of its owner. The outlet and its parent company appealed the decision but, despite some favorable interim rulings, were ultimately unsuccessful. International media watchdogs decried the revocations as politically motivated, claiming that the government was acting in retaliation to increasingly critical coverage by Al-Watan.
Political Environment: 23 / 40
International news is widely available, and a number of foreign media outlets maintain bureaus in Kuwait. News sources originating outside Kuwait must be reviewed by the MOI before circulation. The MOI screens all imported media for morally offensive content and controls the publication and distribution of all materials classified as informational.
The MOI can censor all books, films, and periodicals that it deems to be morally offensive. However, in practice, the ministry does not regularly interfere with or restrict access to news, and the Kuwaiti media sector is considered more critical and outspoken than many others in the region. More in-depth reporting and a greater diversity of opinions appear in newspapers than in broadcast media. Nevertheless, given the restrictions in media legislation and the government’s intolerance of critical reporting, journalists on all platforms continue to practice self-censorship, as failure to do so often results in reprisals. In addition to legal and regulatory penalties, journalists and media outlets occasionally face physical harassment.
Economic Environment: 16 / 30
Six Arabic-language and two English-language newspapers circulate in Kuwait and are all privately owned, largely independent, and diverse in their reporting. Private media have relatively transparent ownership and their own presses, and they are free to set their own prices. A small number of private radio and television stations are available for audiences in Kuwait, and satellite dishes are common. Although the advertising market remains limited, it continues to grow, partly due to an increase in the number of advertising agencies in the country. Wage levels for journalists at both state and private outlets are not high enough to discourage occasional bribery to influence coverage. Relatively low salaries have also dissuaded Kuwaiti nationals from pursuing journalism as a profession; many local media workers are noncitizens.
Approximately 82 percent of the population used the internet in 2015, and the government continued to debate how best to regulate this increasingly popular medium. Authorities require all internet service providers (ISPs) to install and operate systems to block certain types of political websites, in addition to websites carrying material that is deemed anti-Islamic, extremist, or pornographic. However, the blocking policies are not always clear or consistent. Internet café owners are required to record the identities of their customers and must disclose this information to the MOC upon request.