Reporters Without Borders is alarmed by a draft media law which the government unveiled on 8 April and which would deal a major setback to freedom of information in Kuwait if approved by the national assembly. It would allow the authorities to fine journalists up to 300,000 dinars (1 million dollars) for criticizing the emir or the crown prince, or misrepresenting what they say, and impose sentences of up to 10 years in prison on journalists who insult God, the Prophets of Islam, or the Prophet Mohamed’s wives or companions.
“We are outraged by the government’s desire to use this draconian law to control information and restrict freedom of expression,” Reporters Without Borders said, urging the national assembly to reject it. “We point out that freedom of information is a fundamental freedom enshrined in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Kuwait ratified this declaration and must respect its national and international obligations. If adopted by the national assembly, this law would pose a terrible threat to media freedom and would certainly not ‘bolster’ the media, as the Information Minister cynically claimed.”
The bill’s unveiling follows a dangerous surge in convictions of news providers in the past few months. The victims include the blogger Badr Al-Rashidi, who was sentenced on appeal on 20 March to five years of forced labour on charges of sending tweets that supposedly insulted the emir, spread false information and undermined the emirate’s reputation. Detained since June 2012 and originally sentenced to two years in prison, Rashidi always insisted on his innocence and denies sending the offending tweets. His Twitter account continued to be used after his arrest, proving that it was being used by someone else and must have been hacked into.
On 4 February, the court of cassation upheld a sentence of 10 years of forced labour for the blogger Ourance Rashidi, who was convicted on 27 October 2011 of criticizing the emir in videos posted on YouTube and spreading “false information.”
Ayyad Al-Harbi, a journalist with the independent website Sabr who has more than 13,000 followers on Twitter, was sentenced to two years in prison on 7 January for “insulting the emir” in articles about corruption in government circles and the regime’s repressive policies.
Those defended by Reporters Without Borders include Rima Al-Baghdady and Ahmad El-Enezi, two journalists with the Kuwaiti TV station Al-Yaum who read an opposition press release during a news bulletin on 9 October 2012. They are accused of defaming the emir, undermining his authority and insulting the emirate’s traditional values – charges that carry a possible five-year jail term. In a hearing on 10 April, the court decided to postpone examination of defence evidence until 8 May.
“All the jail sentences being imposed on bloggers and netizens are a source of serious concern,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The latest sentences are very severe – two to ten years in prison for blog posts, tweets or a few videos! The convictions on charges of insulting the emir and spreading false information are in most cases a roundabout way of preventing criticism of the government, so this policy of intimidating bloggers and netizens directly threatens freedom of information.”