Written by Nadine Wallnöfer

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  • Area: 17,818 square kilometres
  • Population: 4.2 Million (but only 1.3 Million Kuwaitis)
  • Capital: Kuwait City
  • State form: Unitary constitutional monarchy
  • Official language: Arabic (official), English
  • Religion: Islam (official) 76.7% (65% Sunni, 35% Shia)
  • Flag of Kuwait

    Although Kuwait is still one of the freest countries in the Middle East, Freedom House only considers it as “partly free” when it comes to media freedom. Indeed, the constitution guarantees for example freedom of opinion, freedom of the press and freedom of communication. The media in Kuwait, especially the privately owned newspapers, are largely independent and diverse in their reporting. But since the Islam is the main source of Kuwait’s legislation and a more conservative government is ruling the country at the moment, there are some strict limitations of these freedoms: Criticism of the Emir, insulting the Islam or its fundamental values and violating public morality are forbidden and sometimes punished with draconian measures. Electronic media are monitored with special care and imported foreign media have to be censored to comply with the Islamic idea of morality. The internet was struck particularly hard by new, heavily criticised laws which give the government even broader powers of restriction. Consequently, between 2012 and 2016 Kuwait slipped down from rank 57 to 59 in the Freedom House report and from rank 78 to 103 in the ranking of Reporters Without Borders. Besides the respective reports, other documents and literature, the following portrait is based on four expert interviews conducted in summer 2016.
    Communication policy and regulations
    Form of government and legal system
    Kuwait’s form of government is a constitutional monarchy. The small country has been fully independent since 1961 and it has been ruled by the al-Sabah dynasty since the 18th century. Since 2006 Emir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jabir al-Sabah is the head of state. In Kuwait, no political parties are allowed but there are several political pressure groups like Islamists, merchants, political groups, secular liberals and pro-governmental deputies, Shia activists and tribal groups (Wilks, 2016; CIA, 2016; Foreign Office, 2016b). According to the interviewed political and media advisor, the law also prohibits those who have (ever in their lives) insulted God, the prophet or the Emir, from running for Parliament. He called it a law “that was introduced specifically to target members of the opposition”. Since the last parliamentary elections the majority of the parliament members are pro-government after the oppositions partial election boycott. The reason for the boycott was the Emir’s decree which reduced the people´s votes from four to only one (Foreign Office, 2016b). As reported by the governmental source this “boycott of the resistance” is also the reason for the recent increase in legal regulations. Kuwait has a mixed legal system that consists of English common law, French civil law, and Islamic religious law (CIA, 2016).

    State censorship
    Although parts of the mass media are privately owned and the Press and Publications Law also extends some important protections to the media, the state leadership still enjoys control to a large extent. Just like in other Arab countries the state wields direct and indirect control over the mass media and uses mass communication “as an instrument to mobilize and control the people according to the direction and interest as determined by the leadership” (Nossek & Rinnawi, 2003: 186; Freedom House, 2015). In Kuwait, freedom of speech is guaranteed by article 36 of the constitution: “Freedom of opinion and scientific research is guaranteed. (…) every person shall have the right to express his opinion by speaking or writing or otherwise.” Freedom of the press is also enshrined in the Constitution. Article 37 states that “Freedom of the press and of publication is guaranteed”. But both articles also contain the restricting clause “subject to the conditions and stipulations prescribed by law”. Criticism of the persona of the Emir and the ruling family, the insult to the fundamental values of the monotheistic religions or the prophet, the disclosure of secret or private information, and statements calling for the overthrow of the regime as well as the violation of public morality are strictly forbidden and criminalized by law. According to article 25 of the criminal code public criticism of the Emir is punishable with up to five years in prison (Foreign Office, 2016a; Freedom House, 2015).

    Since the Arab Spring protests in 2011 Kuwait started to issue increasingly restrictive regulations on internet and press freedoms. Especially in 2014 several laws were passed, that allow the government to “block internet content and prosecute online critics” (Bailey, 2016). All interviewed experts agreed that the Islam has the strongest influence on the media and all aspects of the Muslim country. In 2006 amendments to the law increased penalties for criticising Islam up to one year in prison and fines of up to 70,500 dollars. Furthermore, not only the author but also the editor of the publication can be prosecuted for any forbidden content (Freedom House, 2015). So to ensure that these restrictions are followed, there is the Ministry of Information (MOI) which regulates and censors the media industry to comply with the Islamic moral standards (Foreign Office, 2016a). To launch daily newspapers, publishers need an operating license from the MOI, which requires a capital of at least 893,000 dollars, according to the press law of 2006. Within 90 days the MOI has to decide the case. At least the ministry has to explain if they don’t issue a license within those 90 days which can then be appealed in court. And once given, media licenses can only be withdrawn with a court order (Freedom House, 2015).

    Imported media are censored with particular care (Foreign Office, 2016a). For example, Bakayae (2015) wrote an article for the Kuwait Times about his experience watching the movie Mad Max – Fury Road in cinema: “These women are dressed adequately in a sort of white loincloth, but you wouldn’t know this if you haven’t seen the trailers of the film. This is because in Kuwait’s cinemas, they are airbrushed from neck to toe and reduced to floating heads on a white and sometimes black box. The first time the audience got a proper look at the women (called ‘The Wives’ in the film) and saw that they were crudely drawn boxes, the entire cinema hall erupted in laughter”. According to government film censor Qannas al Adwani who was interviewed for an article on “pri.org” in 2010, “No strong violence, sex, kissing, drugs, black magic (…) or a lot of bikinis” are allowed (Koningisor, 2010). As reported by Freedom House (2015) every citizen can denounce others if s/he thinks they have violated any of the mentioned restrictions. That is the reason that violations are reported frequently.

    Then there is the Kuwait News Agency (KUNA) that distributes political statements or announcements to the media (Foreign Office, 2016a). KUNA has offices in 23 capitals including Berlin (Foreign Office, 2016a). One interviewed expert called KUNA “the news gate” which works as a funnel for information. In addition, Kuwait’s laws do not guarantee a right to access official information (Freedom House, 2015). So KUNA can legally decide which information it passes on to the citizens. All of this explains why every year the country is only classified as “partly free” by Freedom House (2016).

    The Commission for Mass Communications and Information Technology (CMCIT), which was founded in 2014 and is overseen by the communications minister, regulates the digital communication. The CMCIT controls phone, internet, cable and satellite services providers. For example, it can order to censor content which might “harm public order”. Furthermore, the CMCIT can give or withdraw licenses without explanation. Amongst critics, concerns have been raised that the CMCIT has such broad and vaguely defined powers and that there is no judicial review provided by law (Freedom House, 2015). In Kuwait, websites with “moral or political offensive content” are blocked and newspapers and television stations are occasionally prohibited (Reporters Without Borders, 2016a). The interviewed experts explained, that online communications are monitored with special care. For example, websites that are suspected to “incite terrorism and instability” are blocked by the Ministry of Communication (MOC) (Freedom House, 2015).

    According to the experts, Kuwaitis are very proud of not being afraid to always speak their mind. Being outspoken is a characteristic feature of the Kuwaiti people and this freedom has always been something that other countries of the region envied them for. This makes it even worse when this freedom is diminished. But since the 2014 law that also formed the CMCIT, sending “immoral messages” on digital platforms is punishable by up to two years in prison (Freedom House, 2015). In 2016 a Cyber Crimes Law came into force to regulate online activities (Reporters without Borders, 2016b). Although one source explained that in times of terrorism, the new law only, first, regulates online crimes like using a fake identity or hacking into systems and, second, orders online news sources to register and thus become more reliable – all for security reasons – critics are very concerned about it. Their points are that the law is used to restrict freedom of expression on the internet and to “target online activists including bloggers and citizen journalists” by “overly broad restrictions” on public morality grounds and based on the press and publications law as well as sedition (Reporters Without Borders, 2016b). For example, the new law allows jail sentences of up to ten years for online “criticism of the government, religious figureheads or foreign leaders” (Bailey, 2016).

    Accordingly, between 2012 and 2016 Kuwait slipped down from rank 57 to 59 in the Freedom House report and from Reporters Without Borders’ rank 78 to 103. Except for one, all interviewed experts confirmed that the situation became worse: “2012 is basically when the resistance decided not to go to parliament. Since then it’s been downhill. So for example the law, the electronic law that just passed. That would have never made it to daylight had the resistance participated! Now there’s a lot that I cannot say! And now basically they can pass whatever they want – no one cares now because no one is there in the parliament to oppose them.” Another expert pointed to the AlSadeq Mosque bombing in June 2015: “Many laws pertaining to the media and other facets of life – a lot of them concerning civil liberties – were fast tracked in the name of security.”
    Media offers
    According to one of the interviewed experts, the media in Kuwait are mainly run and controlled by rich businessmen from influential families who own all the private media offers. The strongly censored governmental offers are less popular and struggle for a larger audience.

    For its small size, Kuwait has a very large number of newspapers (Rugh, 2004: 99). Kuwait has a mostly privately owned and diverse press that covers the entire political spectrum. The print media include a variety of daily, weekly and (mostly sociocultural) monthly papers and magazines with a diversity of opinions, ranging from Islamic fundamentalist to nationalist and conservative to liberal (Foreign Office, 2016a). As reported by Wilks (2016) the press is economically dependent on state subsidies. One reason for this could be that the advertising market remains limited, although it continues to grow (Freedom House, 2015). Another reason is that the huge young generation which makes up 65-70 percent of the population doesn’t buy newspapers.

    The most important newspapers are the Arabic-language Al-Qabas (government-critical), Al-Rai Ala-Am and Al-Seyassah (both pro-government) as well as the English-language dailies Kuwait Times with a 2001 circulation of 28,000 and the Arab Times with a circulation of 42,000 (Wilks, 2016; Foreign Office, 2016a; Worldpress.org, 2016). Furthermore, there are Al-Anbas (The News), Al Dostoor, Al Iklisadia, and Kuwait Today. The Washington Post can also be received in Kuwait (Wilks, 2016). Unfortunately, there were no more-up-to-date circulation numbers to be found but due to Wilks (2016), in 2001, Al-Rai Ala-Am (Public Opinion) had a circulation of about 87,000 copies, Al-Seyassah (Policy) 70,000 and Al-Qabas (Starbrand) 79,000.

    Another popular newspaper, called Al-Watan (The Home-land) had a circulation of about 107,000 in 2001 (Wilks, 2016). It belonged to a member of the ruling al-Sabah family, but according to all interviewed experts it was finally shut down by the government in 2015. There are different rumours about the reason for the shut-down. The official version states bad accounting as the reason but political reasons, such as too critical reporting are strongly suspected. Especially, since Al-Watan was already suspended for two weeks in 2014, reporting on an attempted coup instead of following an order not to do so (Freedom House, 2015). As stated by a source from the media sector, the Al-Watan case is still pending. There are some weekly publications as well, like the economic publication Al-Mousaher, Murat al-Umma (Mirror of the Nations) and Al Yaqza (The Awakening), the weekly Islamic magazine Al-Mujtamaa and various other magazines and publications (Wilks, 2016). The reporting is very lively, even on domestically controversial issues. It doesn’t spare the political leaders in the government and only reflects the political debate in Parliament (Foreign Office, 2016a).

    TV and Radio
    The state-owned TV broadcaster operates four networks and a satellite channel (CIA, 2016). Broadcasting (Radio Kuwait), TV (Kuwait Television, KTV) and the state news agency KUNA provide the official government information policy. In addition, there are 13 private television broadcasters and several satellite TV channels available (CIA, 2016; Wilks, 2016). Pan-Arab TV stations are especially popular, such as MBC1 that is owned by a Saudi Arabian group. Furthermore, Kuwaitis like to watch Turkish drama and the latest Hollywood productions. Since the state-owned broadcasters strictly censor for example kissing-scenes, and the private channels don’t, those have a larger audience. Private channels also show more up-to-date series and are customizing their programmes for the younger generation. Al-Rai, which was the first private TV channel is very popular. There is also pay-TV, especially for sports and specifically popular amongst the young generations. On Bein Sports (former Al Jazeera Sports), for example, they can watch any sport event around the world. To watch all Al Jazeera programs one has to pay about 300-400$ annually. Abu Dhabi has a popular sports channel as well. Young Kuwaitis also use video-on-demand platforms like Netflix.

    The state-owned Radio Kuwait broadcasts news, music and talk radio on a number of channels in Arabic and English. Other radio channels are the music-based Marina FM, the first private radio station, and U FM, a private station for the Indian community (BBC, 2015; Wilks, 2016). The transmissions of some international broadcasters are also available. Voice of America, BBC and RFI broadcast on FM. In addition, foreign radio and television programs can be received via satellite (CIA, 2016; Foreign Office, 2016a). Imported newspapers and magazines, books, videos and movies have to pass the censorship by the MOI to comply with the Islamic traditions and the moral standards and are therefore not always available – sometimes only after months of delay (Foreign Office, 2016a).

    According to all interviewed experts the internet is the most important source of information and news for most Kuwaitis now. Especially the younger ones mainly rely on the internet if they want to know what is happening. A media advisor stated that Kuwaitis are more trusting of social media and information via WhatsApp than of traditional media outlets, mainly because they get their news from there first. Kuwait is the Middle East country with the highest percentage of social media users, in proportionate to the population (Kuwait Times, 2013). In 2015, 2.289 million people or 82.1 percent of the population where estimated to be internet users (CIA, 2016). As stated by the interviewees, the most popular news and information source on the internet is Twitter. Already in 2013, there have been 225,000 Twitter users (Arab Social Media Report, 2016). According to a paper by analysts from the North Eastern University in Boston, Kuwait has the most Twitter users per capita worldwide (Mocanu et al., 2013: 2-3). Two of the experts confirmed that Twitter is the most influential media offer in Kuwait and that there are some bloggers with a lot of followers to whom many are listening. Still, at least one of the interviewees raised concerns that the news on the internet might only be unconfirmed rumours from dubious sources or at least be more biased than the official news.

    Then, there is the country-specific custom of the Diwaniya. The interviewees explained that a Diwaniya traditionally is a gathering of Kuwaiti men where they sit together and talk about everything, especially about politics and business. Many families host Diwaniyas and every Kuwaiti man can go there. Only recently Diwaniyas are no longer strictly limited for males only. Some Diwaniyas also welcome visits of women activists and female parliament candidates or even host foreign guests, like female diplomats now (Kuwait Times, 2014). As stated by the interviewed experts at least all prominent families have their Diwaniya because these gatherings play a very important role in political decisions: “So if you want something from a politician you just go to his Diwaniya because you can go to any Diwaniya you want. When politicians run for parliament and they need our votes they come to our Diwaniya to speak their point and that’s how a lot of movements start.” Diwaniyas are not only a major news source but also influence what’s on the media. Diwaniyas are sometimes even referred to as mini-parliaments (Fattahova, 2011).
    Journalists' autonomy
    Journalists’ working conditions
    The working conditions for journalists are actually quite good: “In the media you can say pretty much whatever you want, within reason. But you cannot criticise the Emir. Not in public and even in a conversation you just cannot criticise the Emir” (government expert). Since Kuwait is very small it is very easy to build up networks and contacts and journalists are not very censored. But even though the interviewed political and media advisor confirmed that Kuwait’s media are relatively free compared to other countries in the region he wouldn’t recommend the profession of journalism (to Kuwaitis at least) because they “will at some point have to write about someone they know, and thus might get ostracised for it.” He added that the newspapers take the shape of their editors-in-chief who are mostly affluent, Sunni men and interested in the maintenance of the status quo. That means that journalists have to adapt and write pro-government. So, this expert believes that most of the papers are “cosy with members of parliament and or ministers”, apart from some recent exceptions. He explained that there are “some things mainstream media won’t touch” but added that the internet and social networks “most definitely will”.

    Regarding foreign media, they are welcome in Kuwait, maybe due to the country’s dependence on allies for defence, but sanctions for violation of Kuwait’s publication laws apply to foreign media as well. Accreditations are extended to foreign correspondents most of the times but there are cases in which publications and journalists have not been allowed to enter Kuwait (Wilks, 2016). One media expert confirmed that journalists are paid less than other professions but thinks that people do not become journalists for the money but for the lifestyle. Due to this source, despite the low salaries, there is no bribery problem because political statements for example go through KUNA and “politicians won’t bribe a journalist to write something apart from that”. One academic expert stated that a journalist in Kuwait only earns about 600 dollars per month. In his opinion this and the loss of the (written) Arabic language amongst many Kuwaitis, are the main reasons why mostly Bedouins who face discrimination and foreigners like Egyptians become journalists.

    State repression, punishment and Journalist´s self-perception
    However, Kuwait’s press is only rated as “partial free” for a reason. There are countless cases of negative consequences from speaking too freely in public to be found. Here are only some examples:

    • On October 15, 2012, the former Kuwaiti MP Musallam al-Barrak spoke out against the “waste of time and resources” by the government and criticized the Emir in public next to the parliament building. On June 13, 2015 he was arrested and put into prison to serve a two years sentence (Amnesty International, 2015a). According to the governmental source speech and arrest made him a national hero since he is the “leader of the resistance” and the first popular figure who got punished that strictly.

    • Another Kuwaiti MP, Abdul Hamid Dashti, was sentenced to a total of 14 years in jail for criticising Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Kuwait’s parliament had to lift his immunity to initiate disciplinary proceedings against him and he was convicted in absentia (Gulf News, 2016).

    • According to the academic source, just recently a young couple posted a picture on snapchat, where they were kissing and they were both arrested for it because it would be against the moral or ethics code to kiss in public.

    • In 2014, a campaign of the Kuwait Child Right Society was shut down because it was considered too sensitive. One expert explained that “a lot of the way the government acts is supposed to make people think there are only positive sides of Kuwait, nothing negative”. That is for the purpose of “nation building” or “installing a feeling of national identity”. In favour to that they prefer to hold back or neglect inconvenient truths.

    • In May 2016, three members of the royal family were sentenced to five years in prison for insulting the Emir in a private group-chat on WhatsApp (Russon, 2016). Since article 39 of the constitution ensures the freedom and secrecy of “postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications”, there are rumours that “a phone that belonged to the lawyer of one of the members of the chat, suddenly appeared in the possession of the police” (governmental source).

    All these examples demonstrate quite well why most journalists in Kuwait self-censor and don’t dare to speak up. There are so many red lines that could accidentally be crossed and they just do not want to risk being arrested. Asked how journalists perceive their role or are perceived by the public, a media expert said, “I think politicians fear them but I don’t think they’re watchdogs. I think they are just an extended voice to what politicians want to convey to the public. Journalists are objective spectators of the things that happen and just telling you the news”. Due to the governmental source the media reporting in Kuwait is “a little too careful”, which is the reason that the trust in the traditional media is very low. But thinking of the many examples where the media or someone dared to express a critical opinion and experienced legal consequences for it, it’s understandable that the majority is just floating with the current.

    While Kuwaitis are free to voice dissident opinions on the Diwaniyas, voicing them to people outside of Kuwait is considered taboo and the government has arrested and imprisoned those who did so, for example, on social media. Punishment is very arbitrary in Kuwait, not only because of the vague wordings of the laws. “Some people can get away with this because they come from a strong family, but some people are just nobodies. So if you’re not backed up, you should stop to be outspoken in politics” (government expert). Since most journalists are no Kuwaiti citizens such unequal treatment can also explain self-censorship and cautious behaviour. Common consequences for transgressions are financial penalties, arrests and prison sentences, withdrawal of the Kuwaiti citizenship (Amnesty International, 2015b), withdrawal of licenses, closure of the media outlet and therefore loss of the job and exile (Freedom House, 2015). Journalists can even be brought to justice for reading out a statement of the opposition on television news (Reporters Without Borders, 2016a).

    So as a conclusion, it could be said that of course the media in Kuwait have more freedoms than in other countries of the Arab world. But still there are so many taboos and restrictions and ever since the Arab Spring there has been a steady reduction of those freedoms and an increase in negative consequences instead. The momentary development in Kuwait unfortunately seems very worrying.

    On some of my sources’ explicit wish, I am not publishing any names of the interviewed experts.

    Interviewed experts (remote via Skype, FaceTime, email)
    • Source from the government / cultural sector
    • Source from the media sector; print
    • Academic source; expert on Kuwait’s media system
    • Political and media advisor
    Related Links
    Recommended citation form
    Nadine Wallnöfer: Kuwait. In: Michael Meyen (ed.), Mapping Media Freedom. LMU Munich: Department of Communication Studies and Media Research 2017. http://mappingmediafreedom.de/kuwait (access date)

    Kuwait: Electronic Frontiers. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XC54vms7Bx8

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