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Media Freedoms and a Media Literate Public

THE TIMES KUWAIT REPORT


The profusion of digital news and social media platforms in recent years, and the staggering rapidity in their uptake by the public, has also led to a deluge of digital disinformation and distortion of facts appearing online. In addition, the widespread release of egregiously misleading news and reports by states, non-state actors, and by ‘misinformation service providers’, has resulted in the spread of racism, discrimination, intolerance and hatred among people, and in rupture of social cohesions.

Moreover, distorted online reports disparaging entire communities, the propagation of conspiracy theories on vaccines, or fake cures for ailments, put at risk the lives and livelihood of affected people, and threaten the fabric of societies and democracies. The boundary between fact and fake content has become blurred to the extent that even those who claim to be digitally-savvy and worldly-wise are often confused between truth and falsehood online.

Even respected media organizations share blame in the spread of disinformation and fake news. The ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine, as well as in other wars and crises across the world, provide ample evidence of the role that the media play, either inadvertently or deliberately, in spreading misleading and often blatantly false news. Financial pressures, falling journalistic standards, biased coverage, and catering to a polarized public by failing to report fully, factually, and fairly, have all contributed to an increasing trust deficiency in the media. Declining trust in both online and print outlets, along with the often divisive role that media play in fanning social and political issues and exacerbating tensions and violence among people, has led to a growing chorus in support of limiting media freedoms. In some places, governments have responded by imposing stricter publishing laws, increasing internet surveillance, and introducing restrictive guidelines on what can and cannot be published.

In Kuwait, the government is apparently keen to foster media freedom as long as equanimity in community relations is maintained and certain ‘red-lines’ are not breached in print and social media coverages. In late September, in his address to media stakeholders, Minister of Information and Minister of Endowments and Islamic Affairs, Abdul Rahman Al-Mutairi, expanded on the government’s new draft media regulatory law.

Explaining the reasons behind the new draft law, Al Mutairi said, “Currently, we have three existing laws, namely the Press and Publishing Law, the Electronic Publishing Law, and the Audio-Visual Law.” Adding that the new draft law combines elements of three previous laws, the minister said that prior to drafting the law, “we examined the underlying standards of existing laws, with the focus on media regulation and freedom, and considered past experiences.”

Elaborating further, the minister said the draft includes, among others, regulating prohibitions and penalties across all media outlets; limiting penalties to the perpetrator of the violation; canceling referral to any other law, and removing the penalty of revoking the license and closing down establishments that violate regulations.“ He referred to the draft law as, “a partnership between specialists and the public, with primary players in the media field being the active contributors”.

“We are committed to a thorough review of the draft texts, and if there are amendments needed to clarify the provisions further, we welcome them,” said the minister. Stressing that the new draft law seeks to safeguard journalists, the media, and to promote greater freedoms, Al-Mutairi added, “We will consider every idea presented until we achieve a media system befitting Kuwait.”

However, a day after the information minister explained the draft media regulatory law, several members of parliament vowed to reject the law when it is tabled for debate in the National Assembly at the end of October when parliament reconvenes after its summer break. The MPs indicated they would call for protecting the individual’s right to expression, and demand that the Information Minister rescind any laws restricting media freedoms.

Reflecting continuing opposition to the draft media regulatory law, last week, the Cultural Committee at the Media Department in Kuwait University College of Arts organized a seminar titled, ‘What do we want from the Media Law?’ Held at the Sabah Al-Salem University City, under the patronage of the Dean of the College, the event attracted academics, parliamentarians, and media professionals.

Participants voiced their concerns with the draft media law, including that it could be manipulated to suit political whims, and that the information ministry was attempting to play the role of the judiciary by introducing restrictions and deciding penalties on its own. They called for expanding media freedoms and removing articles in the draft law that were not only in violation of the constitutional rights of citizens, but also did not conform to the needs of society and individuals, and which were not consistent with prevailing developments in global media space.

Professor of private law at the Faculty of Law, Dr. Fayez Al-Kandari, asked ”Why do we need to combine three laws into one law?” Pointing out that there were repetition and vague wordings in the law’s provisions, he said the law needs to be reformulated linguistically. Al-Kandari added, “We clearly need to come up with a new, distinctive media law, and we also must know the legislative purpose of this law, as, at present, it is curious and has involved everything: elections, money laundering, and others…”

For her part, parliamentarian Dr. Jinan Bushehri said, “We will not accept the passage of a law that restricts freedoms. What we seek is more media freedom for all media workers.” She added that the law in its present form raises several important questions, including the important question: “Who is this law addressed to?” Who are the media professionals addressed by this law?

Conforming to the view of his parliamentary colleague, MP Hamad Al-Olayan said although the draft law contains several beautiful terms, it restricts many freedoms. Noting that the new law defines violations in vague terms that enable political whims to take precedence in some penalties, he said, “the new law contains “many articles that we will not allow to pass. Also, it glorifies the authority of the ministry and the minister, and this is something we do not accept.”

On a related vein, in early October, the Communication and Information Technology Regulatory Authority (CITRA), which regulates internet services and technologies in Kuwait, decided to scrap its tender for developing the Kuwait International electronic portal that it had floated earlier. The decision followed outcry from the public and by legislators who said that it was aimed at monitoring internet activities of users in Kuwait, and restricting their online freedom.

The strong response by citizens and legislators to any attempts to restrict freedom to access the internet or on social media platforms is understandable, given the widespread use of online media in Kuwait. A report in 2022 by the International Data Corporation, a global leader in market intelligence on information technology, found that nearly 100 percent of Kuwait’s population of 4.7 million people were subscribers to internet usage and social media sites, and that mobile subscriptions were in excess of 6.5 million.

Regrettably, the high rate of internet and social media usage, and the large mobile penetration numbers in Kuwait has not translated into a corresponding level of media and information literacy (MIL) among the public. However, this situation is not unique to Kuwait; estimates by the UN show that although 60 percent of the world’s population, or 4.75 billion people, regularly access the internet to express themselves, inform themselves, or ask questions on digital social networks, global MIL numbers remain relatively low.

Today, the world is witnessing a dramatic increase in access to information and communication through traditional print services, as well as, increasingly, from online sources. The information that people gain and engage with daily is critical, as it determines and colors their perceptions, beliefs and attitudes. Media and information literacy enables people to enhance the quality of information they engage with; first, by accessing information from trusted sources, and secondly, by assessing this information critically before using it or sharing with others.

With internet usage predicted to expand phenomenally in the 21-century, the need for the world, and for us here in Kuwait, to promote MIL and critical thinking skills has never been greater. It is imperative that these key learning competencies be inculcated at a very young age by including them in national educational curricula. The world also needs more dependable social anchors and trusted information sources, as well as reliable reference points to base what people read, watch, or interact with online. Sadly, these are attributes that are currently in short-supply.

The ‘Global Media and Information Literacy Week’, organized under the umbrella of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) from 24–31 October every year, underlines the importance of raising awareness and enhancing the uptake of the interrelated set of MIL skills among people worldwide. The event also enables policy- and decision-makers to explore paths for integrating MIL programs into national policies, products, and strategies.

In her message on the occasion of Global Media and Information Literacy Week this year, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay stated that digital networks have become the preferred platforms for expression, protest and interaction worldover. But, paradoxically, while the digital revolution has enabled the spread of democratic ideals and the diversity of cultural expressions, “it now poses serious challenges for our democracies, as disinformation and hate speech proliferate on social networks,” said Ms. Azoulay.

She added that to address these challenges it was essential to enhance media and information literacy globally, and that UNESCO is strongly committed to this task. In this regard, UNESCO and the United Nation Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) have launched the first international university network on Media and Information Literacy and Intercultural Dialogue (UNESCO/UNAOC-MILID Network), with the aim of promoting MIL societies on a global scale.

The aim of the initiative is to ultimately improve understanding and cooperative relations among nations and peoples across cultures and religions. In addition, a public endowed with MIL and critical thinking competencies can maximize the advantages and minimize the harm arising from today’s hyper-connected, communication and information landscape.

Achieving these competencies in the increasingly digital world of the 21st-century also helps promote equality, encourage intercultural and interreligious dialogue, influence freedom of expression, and foster peaceful relations in societies and between nations. As the preamble to the constitution of the United Nations, the UN Charter, states: “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.”



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