Kuwait’s press is widely recognized as the freest among the Gulf states. Newspapers frequently give voice to the country’s political opposition, and columnists do not spare government officials guilty of corruption or mismanagement. But criminal press statutes remain on the books, and several journalists faced prosecution in 2004.
Ending its monopoly of the airwaves, the government licensed the country’s first private television broadcaster, the satellite news channel Al-Rai TV, which was launched in October. Journalists said Al-Rai’s programming was geared toward entertainment and religion, with very little news. The country’s Press Law prohibits criticizing the emir, which is punishable by six months in prison, and empowers the government to suspend newspapers and jail journalists for “tarnishing public morals,” “disparaging God [and] the prophets,” “violating the national interest,” or “creating divisions among people.”
For years, efforts by Kuwaiti journalists and lawmakers to amend the law have been bogged down by bureaucratic gridlock in Parliament and disagreements between journalists and the government over how to rewrite it. Parliament is expected to debate a new draft law in 2005. Journalists are hoping to eliminate prison penalties for press offenses, bar officials from suspending or closing newspapers, and lift the existing cap on the number of daily papers that can be licensed. However, the government and lawmakers were resisting some of these proposals, and at year’s end it was unclear how the debate would unfold.
At least one newspaper was suspended in 2004. In October, the government banned the social-cultural weekly Al-Shaab for three months for violating the terms of its license by printing political news. The paper’s editor speculated that a feature story on an allegedly crooked government arms deal angered authorities.
The government continued to bring criminal defamation cases against reporters. Meshal al-Melhem, a writer for the weekly Al-Taleah, was charged with defaming the judiciary in several opinion columns he wrote about a man’s frustrating dealings with a dysfunctional court system in an anonymous Arab Gulf country that authorities presumed to be Kuwait. The case was eventually dropped, according to newspaper staff.
In 2004, the government reopened a legal complaint that had been dismissed in 2003 against Muhammed al-Jasem, publisher of the daily Al-Watan; he was charged with insulting the emir in a speech. Al-Jasem believes that the charges were concocted in retaliation for his lobbying for relaxing the Press Law. In April 2004, government officials decided to withdraw the complaint altogether, and the case appeared to be closed at year’s end.
Like other Arab countries, Kuwaiti officials are sensitive to political criticism of friendly Arab neighbors, in particular Saudi Arabia, and such criticism is punishable by law. In August, authorities banned U.S. documentary filmmaker Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” claiming that the film insulted the Saudi royal family.