Formerly Liberal Kuwait has started Jailing Dissident Bloggers (Kinninmont)

   
Jane Kinninmont writes for ISLAMiCommentary

Kuwait has traditionally had the greatest freedom of speech of all the Gulf monarchies, as well as having the most powerful parliament. Yet, like all its Gulf neighbours, it has started to crack down on criticism of the ruler since the onset of the Arab spring.

At least 25 people have been charged with “insulting” the Emir since October 2012, and several of them, including three former MPs, have been convicted this year. But in a sign that local and international pressure may be causing the authorities to reconsider, a Kuwaiti court this week acquitted five activists of similar charges – just one day after Human Rights Watch issued a hard-hitting statement urging the Kuwaiti government to drop ”all speech-related charges against online activists and former members of parliament.”

Social media use is soaring in the Gulf, and Kuwaitis use Twitter more than any of their neighbours, with nearly one-quarter of a million Twitter users in a country of 2.8m people — the highest proportion of the population in the Arab world.

The predominantly young population, more than half of which is under 30, is attracted to social media partly because it offers freer debate than the traditional newspapers and broadcasters, though of course many use it primarily for socialising and flirting.

But this surge in the use of new, informal, internationally connected and largely unregulated forms of communication comes at a time when the Gulf ruling families have profound concerns about the impact of the Arab uprisings on their own countries, and are internally divided about how to deal with the youth activism that is growing even in the wealthier corners of the region.

Death Penalty for Blasphemy?

Kuwait’s Twitter arrests initially focused on people who had offended the more conservative authorities of neighbouring countries. In 2011, one young man, Nasser Abul, was imprisoned for “insulting” the rulers of neighbouring states Bahrain and Saudi Arabia on Twitter (charges that were eventually dropped). In 2012, another, Hamad Naqi, was imprisoned for insulting both neighbouring rulers and the Prophet Mohammed (the larger part of the sentence was for the rulers).

Meanwhile, Kuwaiti MPs were also calling for greater restrictions on freedom of speech, in the form of a draft law providing for the death penalty for those convicted of blasphemy. The Emir refused to pass it. At the same time, in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, Hamza Kashgari — who wrote a few lines of poetry on his Twitter account in which he addressed the Prophet as though he was an equal — was accused of blasphemy.  He then fled the country, and managed to reach Malaysia, but was deported back to Saudi, where he was imprisoned.

Conservatives on Twitter called for him to be killed, belying the comfortable myth that social media necessarily brings about a flowering of liberal youth. This divisive case exacerbated fissures in the nascent Saudi opposition movement between those that seek a more religious state and those that focus more on their desire for a constitutional monarchy. Similarly, in Kuwait, some liberals felt the Emir was protecting them from what they saw as the excesses of an elected parliament dominated by Islamist and tribal leaders.

Kuwaitis protest against new electoral law (Nov. 2012). Placard reads “The Nations Dignity” (photo by Jane Kinninmont)
Testing the Boundaries

In 2013 the number of arrests for social media “crimes”  in the Gulf have become harder to count.

Kuwait has seen a slew of arrests recently for “insults” to the leadership as well as unlicenced protests. On February 3, Mohammad Eid al-Ajmi was sentenced to the maximum five years in prison for insulting the Emir (a state security offense) on Twitter.

These arrests follow tensions over last year’s early election, which was called after repeated stalemates between the elected parliament and appointed government.  After numerous short-term attempts to solve the problem by dissolving the parliament and calling new elections, the Emir announced in October that the voting system would be changed. The ensuing election, in December, was boycotted by the opposition, some simply unhappy that their old system of forming alliances had been removed, and others protesting against the idea that the power to change the voting system should be in the hands of the ruler — something still being reviewed by the constitutional court.

Now, an increasingly vocal opposition outside the parliament is testing the boundaries of Kuwaiti politics — drumming up support for street protests instead of working within the parliament — and is calling for a fully elected government, though still under a constitutional monarchy. Neighbouring Gulf countries are none too pleased to see this challenge to a monarchical system in their backyard.

Meanwhile, nonaligned young people are getting caught in the middle. Not all of those arrested were activists. The tweets deemed to constitute criminal offences have even included a retweet of a line of poetry by Ahmed Matar, an Iraqi poet, who, ironically, left Iraq in the 1970s to take refuge in the more liberal environment of Kuwait.

One young tweep told me that while he disliked the opposition, on the basis that the Islamists within it had sought to bring in the restrictions on blasphemy, he now found himself marching side by side with Salafists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood to protest against the government’s crackdown on its critics. Liberal youth find themselves caught in the middle between the Islamist ex-MPs who called for blasphemers to be executed, and a government that has been tightening its political red lines.

Freedom of Expression, Social Media and National Security

Last week, coincidentally on the day al-Ajmi was sentenced for insulting the emir on Twitter, the Euro-Gulf Centre at Kuwait University held a discussion, jointly organised with the British Embassy, on the theme of freedom of expression, social media and national security. I was one of two British participants asked to speak about international experiences with social media and freedom of speech, alongside a Kuwaiti constitutional expert, Mohammed Al Fili, and newspaper editor, Walid Al Nusf.

All of us spoke about social media as an evolving phenomenon that was testing existing assumptions and regulations, and about the need for every country to balance security concerns and political sensitivities with freedom of speech.

Walid Al Nusf said he was sad to see a young man imprisoned for his tweets, and that while the punishment was within Kuwaiti law, he felt there might be better ways to deal with dissent. Education, he argued, was a better way forward than censorship, surveillance and punishment. Mohammed Al Fili likewise noted that the constitution said the Emir was inviolable, but also spoke of the value of freedom of speech and opinion — something that many Kuwaitis see as part of their national identity, especially compared to their Gulf neighbours.

British lawyer Alasdair Gillespie described the UK regulations, which place more restrictions on free speech than those in the US where free speech is defended by the constitution. In the UK there are restrictions on inciting violence or hatred based on race, religion or sexual orientation, as well as libel laws strict enough to attract the easily offended as “libel tourists” to London, who come to file cases against publishers. But British legal precedent has established that there is no right not to be offended; that offensiveness is not enough for something to be banned.

In my comments at the Kuwait University discussion, I argued that not only are we are learning about social media, we are inventing how to use it, and are only just beginning to realise the potential of the technology to contribute to social, political and even linguistic changes. In terms of media regulation, social media users blur the line between private and public discourse – which can create conflicts when someone is essentially addressing their friends on Facebook and suddenly finds themself falling foul of laws designed for old media.

All countries are struggling to deal with it. In a famous case in the UK, a Twitter user, Paul Chambers, was convicted of sending a “menacing electronic communication” in 2010 after he tweeted a misconceived joke complaining that the snow had closed his local airport and that he was tempted to blow the whole thing up. No one at any point mistook his tweet for a real terrorist threat, and an online campaign for the charges to be dropped was formed, with thousands retweeting his tweet with the hashtag #IAmSpartacus – a reference to the film Spartacus, a symbol of the strength of a united crowd in preventing someone being singled out for punishment.

Democratising Power for Good or Ill

Meanwhile, the outrage in many Muslim countries over the controversial film about the prophet Mohammed that appeared on YouTube in 2011 may have had complex political roots, but it also highlighted genuine differences around the notion of blasphemy, which used to be a crime in many Western countries but is now often seen as an idea belonging to the past. In this case, social media’s democratising power had the negative effect of giving disproportionate attention to a badly made film that was hardly representative of mainstream Western opinion. Protests drew more attention to the film and many seemed to have the incorrect impression that this was a Hollywood production or somehow sanctioned by the US government, whereas before social media it would never have been broadcast into Muslim homes.

A more traditional side of Kuwait — Souk Mbarkiya. (photo by Jane Kinninmont)
I also argued that it is possible to overstate cultural differences here. Yes, different societies may have different traditions and norms about what constitutes acceptable discourse. But usually this is contested within each society.  The notion that we all live in different cultures belies the change, contestation and ideas being shared within and between cultures, and the existence of multiple subcultures, with different views about what is “appropriate” or acceptable — something that can also change across generations. Moreover, harsh punishments for what is said on Twitter or Facebook can be deeply counterproductive, and can have precisely the opposite effect of what is intended.

Coming so soon after al-Ajmi’s sentencing, it was no simple task to discuss the issue with an audience that ranged from establishment dignitaries to furious student activists. At times like this the desire to be diplomatic can shade into self-censorship. As a Western visitor, I felt on one hand an obligation to be polite about the practices of a country I had just arrived in, and on the other hand, as the event went on, I became aware of an expectation, at least on the part of some of the students, that the Western speakers, who had no fear of arrest or retribution, should be the ones standing up for freedom of speech.

At a time when Kuwait was arresting people for what they had said on Twitter, one journalist asked why the British government was supporting such a discussion, when the local papers had recently reported that there was a new agreement between Kuwait and several British firms to co-operate on cyber security.

(Bahraini NGOs, meanwhile, have filed a complaint with the OECD about the alleged activities of British cyber-surveillance firms working for the Bahrain government, which has also imprisoned Twitter users for insulting the ruler or for calling for protests. There, Twitter and YouTube are often used by activists to document protests, broadcast political speeches and satire, and, in some cases, to take footage of local police violence to a global audience.)

Using the hashtag #Q8_expression, most of the Twitter comments directed at the Kuwait University speakers were sarcastic, and some angry:

“Will this hashtag guarantee freedom from prosecution?”

“Why doesn’t the UK just provide our rulers with a book on Constitutional  Monarchy 101?”

The Kuwaiti authorities are now preparing a new law on social media. Officials say this will provide more clarity and encourage people to use social media “responsibly”, but activists are concerned by the precedent set by the UAE, which issued a sweeping new cyber crimes law in December.

That law makes it an imprisonable offence to use information technology with the intention of mocking or harming the reputation of the state or its rulers, or to advocate changing the system of governance.

In 2011, five UAE activists were imprisoned for several months for insulting the rulers after organising a petition calling for an elected parliament, and more than 90 more dissidents have been arrested since then.

Even in Qatar, which abolished its information ministry and presents itself as an enlightened advocate of freedom and debate, a poet has been imprisoned for life for a poem deemed to insult the ruler. It’s likely his poem is reaching larger audiences as a result.

Jane Kinninmont is the Senior Research Fellow on the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House. Previously, she was Associate Director for Middle East and Africa at the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), part of the Economist Group. Jane has a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from the University of Oxford, Balliol College, and an MSc in International Politics with a focus on the Middle East from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Jane has published one book of poetry, ‘Seven League Stilettos’, and is currently working on a book about Bahrain for UK-based publishers IB Tauris. Follow Jane on Twitter @JaneKinninmont. 

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Mirrored from IslamiCommentary

7 Responses

  1. Kuwait has been a great place and has provided for its citizens generously. A bunch of trouble makers are now using the liberal environment to make themselves king makers hoping to become rulers themselves. They want to use democracy to gain power and then shut everyone out. The tribal people don’t respect democracy and don’t understand it. Just try and tell them something they don’t like and they will chase you out of town. Along with the salafi’s they are a big threat to Kuwait.

  2. This would be such a great time for the House of Sabah to unilaterally institute a Constitutional Monarchy patterned after Great Britain.

    If only the Western oligarchs would support that.

    The family doesn’t need any more wealth or power.
    They would love to improve the lives of their subjects, making them into citizens.

    But the GCC tyrants would be undermined, our Western governments worry, and we would lose control.

    • “This would be such a great time for the House of Sabah to unilaterally institute a Constitutional Monarchy patterned after Great Britain. If only the Western oligarchs would support that.”

      In the unlikely event that the House of Sabah were to unilaterally institute a constitutional monarchy, what makes you think the Western powers would not support it? They certainly assisted change in Libya, and they have gone along with fundamental changes in Tunisia and Egypt. What is your evidence that they would not accept and support change in Kuwait?

      • Well, Brian has a nice thought. The response is as expected. Maybe the response to the response is to ask, “Where is your evidence that (in that hugely unlikely event) the Western Oligarchs WOULD support that kind of change?” It’s sure not evident from the way the Game is currently being played. And these little snippets can hardly encompass all the myriad things that those Western potentates have done and are doing to involve themselves in and pretend to direct all that’s happening. Oh, Look! No “Victory” or “Success” in Afghanistan, unless one insists on defining what’s happened over the last what, eleven years, as “Success!” Yeah, we MEANT to do that, right? Says the GAO, the way you hit the target is to keep moving it into the path of the bullet: link to gao.gov Just change the definitions, right? link to security.blogs.cnn.com

  3. As always, there’s this weird notion people have about “natural rights,” always confronting and sometimes facing down the guys in uniforms who do what they can get away with to make the world safe for plutocracy, and often mysogynist patriarchy too. Until, as seen in Syria and elsewhere, some combination of nausea, self-interest and personal fear leads them to “switch sides.”

    For those who peddle, for various purposes and benefits, the latest World Existential Threat, “al Quaeda,” as some revenant Monolithic Communism Planning to Do Something To Our Precious Freedom Rights and Bodily Fluids, there’s this widely heralded Top Secret Document from a middle-manager Jihadi in Mali, supposedly uncovering, revealing, displaying for all to see the Master Plan of Al Quaeda to Take Over Everything, of which portions have been translated and published in netspaces like here: link to chrisjonesmedia.com Here’s part of the blogger’s reportage on something that others are laughing about, it’s so typical of bureaucracy (link to nsfwcorp.com):

    Perhaps the biggest concession Droukdel urges is for his fighters to slow down in implementing Shariah.

    When the Islamic extremists took over northern Mali 10 months ago, they restored order in a time of chaos, much as the Taliban did in Afghanistan, and even created a hotline number for people to report crimes. But whatever goodwill they had built up evaporated when they started to destroy the city’s historic monuments, whip women for not covering up and amputate the limbs of suspected thieves.

    “One of the wrong policies that we think you carried out is the extreme speed with which you applied Shariah, not taking into consideration the gradual evolution that should be applied in an environment that is ignorant of religion,” Droukdel writes. “Our previous experience proved that applying Shariah this way, without taking the environment into consideration, will lead to people rejecting the religion, and engender hatred toward the mujahedeen, and will consequently lead to the failure of our experiment.”

    Droukdel goes on to cite two specific applications of Shariah that he found problematic. He criticizes the destruction of Timbuktu’s World Heritage-listed shrines, because, as he says, “on the internal front we are not strong.” He also tells the fighters he disapproves of their religious punishment for adulterers – stoning to death – and their lashing of people, “and the fact that you prevented women from going out, and prevented children from playing, and searched the houses of the population.”

    “Your officials need to control themselves,” he writes.

    Droukdel’s words reflect the division within one of al-Qaeda’s most ruthless affiliates, and may explain why Timbuktu, under the thumb of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, experienced a slightly less brutal version of Shariah than Gao, one of the three other major cities controlled by the extremists. There was only one amputation in Timbuktu over their 10-month rule, compared to a dozen or more in Gao, a city governed by an al-Qaeda offshoot, MUJAO, which does not report to Droukdel.

    Droukdel’s warning of rejection from locals also turned out to be prescient, as Shariah ran its course in Timbuktu. The breaking point, residents say, was the day last June when the jihadists descended on the cemetery with pickaxes and shovels and smashed the tombs of their saints, decrying what they called the sin of idolatry.

    Many in Timbuktu say that was the point of no return. “When they smashed our mausoleums, it hurt us deeply,” said Alpha Sanechirfi, the director of the Malian Office of Tourism in Timbuktu. “For us, it was game over.”

    Maybe, Professor, you could give all of us the benefit of the whole text of that memo?

    It’s not hard to find, in the flood of Milbabble the War Department generates, much the same kinds of complaints about how to get anywhere in places we so kindly invade and occupy, on the pretext of Bringing Democracy to the Unenlightened. Oh, and “protecting National Interests and Installations and Assets.”

    So what’s this all about, again? link to gao.gov It’s long, it’s detailed, and it ought to make us sick of this crap.

  4. The left has no business criticizing kuwait on ANYTHING. If it was up to the enlightened progressives, kuwait would not exists, its people living in fear and terror, or exile and humiliation and misery.

    Not is the left against that war, but you belittling the suffering of kuwaitties and mocked it. The story if nayirah is paraded as evidence that nothing wrong happened in kuwait, NEVERMIND THE INVASION. Articles are written saying they deserve it, its’ a dictatorship, or was part of iraq, or etc. etc etc… Saddam’s propagandist couldn’t have done a better job than the left. I’ve read one article saying one reason not to help is tha tkuwaities are playboys. Really. A rich minority enjoying their money means it’s ok to invade and erase their country. Guess if a power invades the US I’ll point to spring break as evidence that no help should be given to the US. Self-determination is only good when in an anti-western cause like palestine, and no attention is paid to the victims’ faults – rightfully so, otherwise let them rot is the philosophy of you self-righteous HYPOCRITES.

    VILE HYPOCRITES.

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