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Controversial new media law fanning the flames: Is democracy at stake in Kuwait?

Controversial new media law fanning the flames: Is democracy at stake in Kuwait?

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Politics Freedom of Expression

Friday 25 August 202306:02 pm
إقرأ باللغة العربية:

لماذا يثير "قانون الإعلام الجديد" غضب الكويتيين؟

A wave of uproar and outrage has been set off by the draft of Kuwait's new media regulation law, primarily due to certain contentious clauses and newly-introduced penalties. Experts, elected officials, and concerned citizens have collectively labeled these new provisions as a "suppression of freedoms and liberties," a "departure from constitutional principles," and an "extension of restrictions on freedom of expression," warning that this might mark a "retrogressive step and a blow to the progression of democracy."

The uproar began on Tuesday, August 22, 2023, when local newspapers, including Al-Qabas newspaper in its print edition, published that the "Ministry of Information has at last finished preparing a new draft law to regulate and oversee media, following a review by the Fatwa and Legislation Department." These reports brought attention to the fact that "the new draft legislation encompasses a range of stipulations, provisions, warnings, and new penalties, the most significant of which is: prohibiting any critique of the Crown Prince or Deputy Emir, a change from the existing law which only pertains to the person of 'His Highness the Emir of the country'."

A fervent debate has flared over the provisions, with some voices attempting to countermand the reports, until the Ministry of Information intervened to confirm that they are in the process of preparing the aforementioned law for submission to the National Assembly.

Contentious provisions of the law

Among the prominent clauses of the proposed law draft attributed by "Al-Qabas" to have ignited the controversy:

- "Any form of criticism directed at His Highness the Emir, His Highness the Crown Prince, or the Deputy Emir is strictly prohibited. No individual is allowed to attribute any statement or action to any of them without explicit written consent from the Emir's Diwan or the Crown Prince's Diwan. Breaching this regulation is punishable by a sentence of imprisonment, lasting up to three years, and a fine that ranges from a minimum of 50 thousand Kuwaiti dinars (equivalent to over 160 thousand US dollars) to a maximum of 100 thousand Kuwaiti dinars (approximately 325 thousand US dollars), subject to either of these prescribed penalties."

Widespread criticisms have emerged regarding Kuwait's #MediaRegulationLaw, with concerns that it signifies "a regression and a blow to the progression of democracy." Here are the most controversial text from the new law that have fueled this heated debate

- "Publishing or displaying any content that may undermine the sanctity of the divine essence, angels, the Holy Quran, prophets, and messengers – peace be upon them – as well as the companions of the Prophet and the family members of the Prophet (PBUH). This includes expressions of mockery, criticism, defamation, or any form of ridicule."

- "Disparaging the private life of a public employee, a person assigned to perform a public service, or any representatives of the National Assembly by attributing false statements or actions to them that involve tarnishing their character or insulting them."

- "Encouraging the overthrow of the country's governance system or advocating for its alteration through force or illicit means, or promoting the use of force to transform the existing social and economic structure of the nation, or endorsing ideologies that seek to dismantle Kuwait's foundational systems through unlawful methods."

- "Mocking or degrading the Constitution of the State" and "violating public morals or incitement to violate laws and commit crimes, even if the crime has not transpired," and "revealing information about confidential official communications, agreements, and treaties concluded by the Kuwaiti government prior to their publication in the official gazette, unless under special authorization from the relevant ministry."

- "Impacting the value of the national currency or actions leading to the erosion of confidence in the country's economic status, or disseminating news of the bankruptcy of merchants or commercial companies, banks, or money exchanges, except with a special authorization from the competent court."

- "Inciting sectarian or tribal conflicts, or spreading ideas that advocate the superiority or supremacy of any race, group, color, origin, religious denomination, gender, lineage, or promoting acts of violence for such purposes."

As for the penalties, they range from a fine of no less than three thousand Kuwaiti dinars (approximately $9,700) and not surpassing twenty thousand Kuwaiti dinars (approximately $65,000) for any violation linked to the prohibited matters of publication. For any violation not explicitly specified in the law, a fine of no less than one thousand Kuwaiti dinars (over $3,200) and not exceeding three thousand Kuwaiti dinars (approximately $9,700) applies.

In instances of insulting the divine essence, angels, the Holy Quran, prophets, messengers, their companions, the Prophet's wives, or the members of the Prophet's family, the punishment is imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years and a fine of no less than fifty thousand Kuwaiti dinars and not exceeding one hundred thousand Kuwaiti dinars, or one of these two penalties. It's essential to note that the penalty will be doubled "in case of recurrence". Additionally, the court may, in conjunction with the aforementioned penalties, order the closure of the establishment, revoke its license, or suspend operations for a duration not exceeding one year.

Incitement to "overthrow the government system" – and the charges enumerated in the same article – are punishable by imprisonment for a term not surpassing three years and a fine of no less than fifty thousand Kuwaiti dinars and not exceeding one hundred thousand Kuwaiti dinars, or one of these two penalties.

If material that violates the law is published through a media outlet, the list of those "liable to punishment" encompasses "the writer or author of the printed content and their publisher, distributor, or printer", "the newspaper's editor-in-chief or their deputy, as well as the author of the article", "the channel's director or their deputy, the media content's producer and presenter, and anyone responsible for broadcasting said content, along with the interviewee or the originator of the media content", "the broadcasting company's director", and "the manager responsible for the cinema projection and the individual or individuals accountable for organizing the public artistic event."

Furthermore, the proposed law underscores the need for "supervision" over film production and the regulation of events "to preserve spiritual values and adhere to the authentic customs and traditions of Kuwaiti society, while avoiding undermining public order, violating public morals, or infringing upon laws."

The list of prohibitions in Kuwait's new proposed #MediaRegulationLaw encompasses "criticizing the Crown Prince or Deputy Emir", "violating public morals" and "endorsing ideologies that seek to dismantle Kuwait's foundational systems" with severe penalties

Ministry of Information attempts' at reassurance

As soon as word spread about the potential provisions of the draft law when it became public, a majority of Kuwaitis interpreted it as a government endeavor to "silence dissenting voices" and "divert citizens' attention from its failure to address and resolve pressing issues". This legislation is seen as possibly jeopardizing the government's standing, as observed by Raseef22 through hashtags such as "#MediaRegulationLaw" and "#AlAhmadis'LawtoStifleVoices", alluding to Ahmad Al-Nawaf, the head of the government supporting the proposed law, and Ahmed Al-Sadoun, the head of the National Assembly, who some citizens fear might be "complicit" in its passing.

In what appears to be an effort to mollify public sentiment, the Kuwaiti Ministry of Information recently clarified its stance through its Twitter account on August 22nd. The ministry expressed its "commitment to upholding all constitutional and legal frameworks related to the draft law on media regulation, in a way that guarantees the promotion of freedoms and the development of Kuwaiti media endeavors."

The ministry emphasized that it had diligently "submitted the draft law to pertinent government bodies for comprehensive input and recommendations. These steps are aimed at completing all official procedures tied to the draft law in preparation for its submission to the National Assembly in early October. The law will be referred to the educational committee within the assembly, in accordance with prior agreements discussed in a previous meeting."

The ministry underscored its "unwavering commitment to cooperative efforts and sustained coordination with both legislative and executive entities, all with the intent of enhancing Kuwaiti media and promoting conscientious freedoms."

Despite these measures, the controversy surrounding the issue has not subsided. On August 23rd, the ministry made a new announcement, indicating its intention to extend a public invitation that targets all media professionals, constitutional experts, and public interest associations, inviting them to partake in a discussion session. This session will focus on the draft media regulation law, encompassing the insights gathered from the relevant government entities and agencies within the country.

Scheduled for September 25th, 2023, this discussion session will be attended by notable figures including the Minister of Information and the Minister of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs, Abdulrahman Al-Mutairi. The statement released regarding the event highlighted that the discussions would delve into the intricate "details of the draft law".

However, Deputy Janan Boushahri took a different stance, deeming the current approach of "promoting a draft law that is a failure on the political, legislative, and popular levels, will not work. I will participate in the forthcoming discussion session convened by the Ministry of Information, and I will confront the Minister of Information, so that everyone will realize the perils of this law as an idea before it materializes into a formal law."

In a subsequent tweet, Boushahri reiterated her position, "As a member of the parliamentary educational committee, the sole confirmed agreement documented in the minutes of the committee during discussions on the amendments I had proposed for media laws. This agreement stipulated that the Ministry would introduce a law early in October, designed to ensure more responsible media freedoms." She emphasized the importance of precision in reporting events, reiterating her earlier statement: "should the project be presented in its current form, it could signify the demise of the minister's political future."

Janan Boushahri: "This draft law is a failure on the political, legislative and popular levels. I will attend the session called for by the Ministry of Information and confront the Information Minister, so everyone knows the dangers of this law before it's realized"

If the representatives are against it, who is in favor?

Remarkably, the vast majority of the members of the National Assembly have taken to their social media platforms to vehemently voice their opposition to the proposed law. In a tone tinged with sarcasm, the former Speaker of the National Assembly, MP Marzouq Al-Ghanim, directed a question to the Prime Minister, inquiring, "Does this law that is about to be introduced, as confirmed by the Ministry of Information, fall under the umbrella of a policy aimed at course correction?"

MP Muhail Khaled Al-Mudhaf shared on Twitter that the "new media regulation law constitutes a departure from the constitution, as well as its tenets, content, and clauses. It originates from individuals who harbor ill intentions towards Kuwait and its people, deliberately blurring the lines between regulating and stifling freedoms."

MP Abdulaziz Tareq Al-Saqabi wrote, "Cooperation doesn't mean abandoning the duty of countering any attempt to stifle voices. The progress of both the government and the parliament can only be advanced through divergent viewpoints and constructive critique, a notion that must be safeguarded, regardless of how much we disagree with it. The crux lies in the methodology, not individual perspectives. We won't entertain a governmental law that transgresses the red lines."

MP Hassan Jawhar observed that "the government has disregarded the comprehensive legislative roadmap encompassing laws governing the appointment of leaders and safeguarding public finances. Instead, they've opted for a law suppressing freedoms that weren't even part of their agenda." He argued that this marked the government's own political undoing.

MP Dawood Marafie cautioned the Prime Minister that "the inception of conflict with the people lies in the regulation of their freedoms. With the will of the people, previous Prime Ministers have left their positions. If the people wish it, you're next." He emphatically asserted, "We won't stand for the manipulation of constitutional clauses through arbitrary legislation."

MP Adel Al-Damkhi pointedly remarked, "Any laws restricting freedoms are essentially providing cover for the corrupt and those pilfering public funds." Meanwhile, MP Hamad Al-Obaid declared, "We won't acquiesce to legislation that discriminates between citizens, parliamentarians, and ministers. If this proposal is formally presented to the Council, it will undergo amendments." In contrast, MP Shuaib Al-Muwaizri simply declared the controversial law to be "unequivocally rejected."

MP Mubarak Al-Tasha expressed bewilderment at how, "While everyone is advocating for a fresh start, enhanced public engagement and participation, as well as vigilant oversight over public opinion, we are confronted with a governmental law that restricts public scrutiny and intensifies punitive measures."

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The media landscape: A bitter truth

It may come as no surprise that much of the news coming out of the Arab world is tainted with bias, aiming to blind us from the truth. Various regional news agencies wield considerable public and political influence, and have the ability to mislead audiences and thus usurp our ability to fight for change.

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