Attacks on the Press 2003: Kuwait

In the lead-up to the U.S.-led war in Iraq, hundreds of international journalists assembled in Kuwait, the main launching pad for the U.S. invasion. Although journalists were able to report freely within the country, those seeking to cross the border into Iraq encountered stiff resistance from the Kuwaiti military.

In mid-February, the Kuwaiti government declared a 75-mile (120-kilometer) “military exclusion zone” in the northern third of the country where U.S. troops were based. Journalists wishing to travel toward the border were required to have a special permit from the Interior Ministry, which often proved difficult to obtain.

Once hostilities commenced in late March, Kuwaiti authorities prevented non-embedded reporters from entering southern Iraq. As a result, many remained in Kuwait or went on official trips to southern Iraq with the U.S. military. The latter often turned out to be less than optimal for independent newsgathering. “To show up with a Humvee with machine guns on top, and guys in flak jackets and helmets, completely changes the dynamic when you try to talk to people,” ABC News reporter John Donvan told The Washington Post during a trip to southern Iraq.

Some journalists managed to sneak past checkpoints and gain entry to Iraq. Others camped out at Bedouin farms along the Kuwait-Iraq DMZ before the war started and were able to make their way north once the fighting began.

Inside Kuwait, restrictions on the media were less dramatic. As war approached, Kuwaiti journalists speculated that the government might impose martial law and, with it, press censorship. CPJ articulated these concerns in meetings with Kuwaiti officials in February in the capital, Kuwait City. In the end, such measures never materialized. The Information Ministry, however, issued a directive barring journalists from filming Kuwaiti troops in the streets, and reporters complained about the lack of access to Kuwaiti officials.

More troubling, the ministry warned journalists, under the threat of criminal penalties, not to file stories for Israeli media. The move was apparently precipitated by the presence of a number of dual-national Israeli reporters who had arrived on non-Israeli passports to cover events. Absent from the mix of foreign media was the Qatar-based broadcaster Al-Jazeera, which remained banned from Kuwait one year after authorities closed its local bureau because its reports were allegedly “biased” against the country.

Kuwait’s relatively robust print press maintained its critical edge in war coverage and other domestic issues throughout 2003. Unfortunately, however, the country’s press law can serve as a deterrent to coverage of sensitive topics. For instance, under the law, it is prohibited to subject “the person of the emir to criticism,” and the government can suspend newspapers and jail journalists for “tarnishing public morals,” “disparaging God [and] the prophets,” “violating the national interest,” or “creating divisions among people.”

On June 8, Kuwait’s Council of Ministers filed a lawsuit against Mohammad al-Jasem, editor of the leading daily Al-Watan, accusing the journalist of “object[ing] to the rights and powers of the emir publicly.” The charges, punishable by up to five years in prison, stemmed from a speech al-Jasem made on June 7 at a campaign gathering for a parliamentary candidate. During the speech, al-Jasem criticized official misconduct in Kuwait’s electoral process. Al-Jasem said he actually made no mention of the emir, and he believes that the charges against him were prompted by his stand against a restrictive draft press law and criticism of Kuwaiti officials in his newspaper. The incident triggered international protests, and authorities dropped the original charge. However, they replaced it with a new one of insulting the prime minister and ruling family, which also carries the possibility of imprisonment. On December 28, the court dismissed the case, citing procedural errors on the part of the prosecution. The verdict could be appealed within 20 days of the ruling, but nothing had been filed by year’s end.

Kuwaiti editors have strongly criticized the changes to the press law proposed by the government in 2002. The amendments would empower state prosecutors to suspend newspapers on the recommendation of the Information Ministry and place a cap on the number of newspapers that can be licensed. The amendments have remained bogged down in Parliament for more than a year, and it was unclear when they might be debated.

In other developments, Kuwait’s High Court commuted the death sentence handed down on March 11 against police officer Khaled al-Azmi, who was convicted of murdering Hidaya Sultan al-Salem, owner and editor of the weekly magazine Al-Majales. Al-Salem was shot in March 2001 on her way to work in what her lawyers and the government said was retribution for an Al-Majales article that allegedly insulted the women of al-Azmi’s tribe. However, some Kuwaiti journalists believe that al-Azmi may have killed al-Salem because of a personal dispute. Al-Azmi, who never admitted to the crime, is now serving a life sentence.

In December, Kuwait’s press corps was rattled by another act of violence when a letter bomb, postmarked Beirut, Lebanon, arrived at the offices of Ahmed Jarallah, editor of the daily Al-Siyassah. The package exploded, slightly injuring Jarallah’s secretary. The motive and source of the bombing was unclear, though the paper was critical of “political and religious fanatics in the Arab world,” said Jarallah.

Meanwhile, two journalists remained in official custody in Kuwait. Ibtisam Berto Sulaiman al-Dakhil and Fawwaz Muhammad al-Awadi Bessisso, were jailed for life in June 1991 for working with the collaborationist newspaper Al-Nida’, which was published under the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. Kuwait’s emir pardoned the journalists in 2002, but they remained in jail because Bessisso, a stateless Palestinian, is not a citizen of any country and Al-Dakhil, a naturalized Kuwaiti citizen from Iraq, lost her citizenship as a result of her conviction. Efforts were still under way to identify a country willing to accept them. Since 1996, some 15 Al-Nida’ journalists have been released, many by royal decree, and all have been deported.

Kuwait’s government owns and controls all radio and television stations in the country. The Information Ministry periodically issues directives to Internet service providers to filter “immoral” content and some political content.