Although Kuwait enjoys one of the region’s most vibrant and respected presses, journalists recently experienced a noticeable deterioration in their freedoms. Government censorship continued in 1999, as did criminal prosecutions of reporters under the country’s press law and criminal code. After a welcome January court decision that canceled a six-month prison sentence imposed on former Al-Qabas editor Muhammad Jasim al-Saqr in 1998 for publishing a joke about Adam and Eve in his paper, judicial authorities pursued another high-profile prosecution. In October, local academic Dr. Ahmad al-Baghdadi was sentenced to one month in prison for allegedly defaming Islam and the prophet Muhammad in a 1996 article that he wrote for the Kuwait University student magazine Al-Shoula. Al-Baghdadi was quickly freed after the emir pardoned him a few weeks later.
Shortly after al-Baghdadi’s conviction, authorities suspended the daily Al-Siyassah for five days in response to a story it published on a local Islamist figure who indirectly criticized the emir’s decision to grant women the right to vote.
In February, three of the remaining five journalists jailed in Kuwait for their work with the Iraqi-occupation newspaper Al-Nida were pardoned by the emir and released. Since 1996, a total of 15 Al-Nida journalists have been freed–many as a result of the emir’s annual pardon, which coincides with Kuwait’s annual celebration of its National Day and its liberation from Iraqi occupation.
However, two of the Al-Nida journalists remained in jail at year’s end: Fawwaz Muhammad al-Awadi Bessisso and Ibtisam Berto Sulaiman al-Dakhil. In June 1991, these two journalists and three of their colleagues were convicted of collaborating with Iraqi-occupation forces and sentenced to life in prison.
In an April 2 meeting with Kuwaiti ambassador Dr. Muhammad al-Sabah in Washington, a CPJ delegation led by board member Peter Arnett urged their release. “Nearly a decade after the Gulf War, it is an opportune time for Kuwait to close this painful chapter and release the remaining imprisoned journalists,” said Arnett. At the conclusion of the meeting, Ambassador al-Sabah said he was “hopeful that we will be in a position to say that there will be no one in jail from the Iraqi occupation in the near future.”
Citing alleged violations of professional ethics, Information Minister Youssef Muhammad al-Sumait issued a decree prohibiting reporters with the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite channel from covering stories in Kuwait.
According to the Kuwait News Agency, the decree stipulated that “media activity or any other activity by [Al-Jazeera] would not be allowed in the State of Kuwait and that the journalistic and media work permits of all those working at the Al-Jazeera office in Kuwait or those who cooperate with it had been revoked.”
The ban came in response to an early-June broadcast of the live program “Sharia and Life.” During the broadcast, which dealt with women’s rights, a viewer who identified himself as an Iraqi national phoned in and strongly criticized Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah, the emir of Kuwait. In response to a guest who had asked that God save Sheikh Jaber, the caller reportedly said that God should not be asked to protect a man “who embraces atheists and permits foreign armies to enter Kuwait.”
Al-Sumait said Al-Jazeera was banned because it had the “audacity to attack” the emir and the state of Kuwait. In a June 22 letter to al-Sumait, CPJ condemned the ban and called for its immediate reversal.
On July 29, Kuwait’s new information minister, Dr. Saad bin Tiflah al-Ajami, announced that the ban had been reversed. “Dealing with [the station] is important and necessary,” al-Ajami said. “For the sake of Qatar we will welcome Al-Jazeera.”
Ahmed al-Baghdadi, free-lancer IMPRISONED
An appellate court sentenced al-Baghdadi, head of the political-science department at Kuwait University and a regular contributor to the daily newspaper Al-Siyassah, to one month in prison for allegedly defaming Islam and the prophet Muhammad. That same day, police arrested al-Baghdadi at his home and took him to Talha Prison to begin his sentence. The charge stemmed from a 1996 article that al-Baghdadi wrote for the Kuwait University student magazine Al-Shoula. In the article, al-Baghdadi stated that the prophet Muhammad had initially failed in his mission to convert nonbelievers to Islam while in Mecca but was eventually successful in Medina. The lawsuit was reportedly filed by the imam of a Kuwaiti mosque, who argued that applying the term “failed” to the prophet constituted blasphemy.
CPJ condemned al-Baghdadi’s imprisonment in an October 5 letter to Emir Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah. Al-Baghdadi was released on October 18, after the emir pardoned him.
Kuwait’s Council of Ministers imposed a five-day suspension on the daily AlÐSiyassah for allegedly insulting the emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah.
The decision came in response to an October 16 article that ran on the front page of Al-Siyassah. The piece quoted Hamed al-Ali, a local Islamist figure who is secretary general of the Salafiyya Movement (Haraka Salafiyya). Al-Ali referred to an alleged “secular conspiracy in the gulf” and indirectly criticized the emir for granting women the right to vote and to participate in politics. Al-Ali’s comments were widely covered in the independent Kuwaiti press, though Al-Siyassah was the only paper to feature the story on its front page.
The suspension began on October 18. In an October 19 letter to Sheikh Jaber, CPJ protested the suspension and urged that it be reversed immediately. Al–Siyassah resumed publication on October 23.