In what could be nothing more than a coincidence, the statement by Minister of Information and Minister of Endowments and Islamic Affairs, Abdul Rahman Al-Mutairi, on the government’s draft media regulatory law, came just days ahead of the International Day for Universal Access to Information, celebrated annually on 28 September.
In his address last week to media stakeholders, including editor-in-chiefs of leading newspapers, journalists, and other printing and publishing personnel, Minister Al-Mutairi sought to explain and defend the new media regulatory environment. He noted that the draft regulations had gone through two previous phases during which challenges facing the media field were examined, and comments from official entities related to the law were collected. The current meeting, he said, was the third phase and intended to hear directly from the media industry stakeholders.
Minister Al-Mutairi emphasized, “We will consider every idea presented until we achieve a media system befitting Kuwait.” Pointing out that the new media strategy reflects the belief of His Highness the Amir that the media belongs to the people, the minister added, “this law is a partnership between specialists and the public, with the primary players in the media field being the active contributors”.
Remarkably, in the same week that the new regulations were being elucidated by the minister, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) issued a statement calling for more journalistic freedoms. In its statement on the International Day for Universal Access to Information, the IFJ called on governments across the world to stop hindering journalists from fulfilling their professional duties and commit to guaranteeing universal access to information.
The statement noted that universal access to information is an integral part of an individual’s right to freedom of expression, as it allows citizens to know what data has been created and stored, in their name and at their cost. Access to information also contributes to the public debate, enhances transparency, and holds governments accountable for their actions, or lack thereof. It also enables citizens to make informed decisions, and helps legislators and civil society organizations to perform their role as watchdogs more effectively.
In addition, the statement underlined that unfettered access to public information is critical for the production of quality journalism, as it is a vital mechanism that enables journalists to gather facts and data needed to inform the public, which in turn helps create resilient. Inclusive, and knowledgeable societies. The statement stressed that the right to universal access to information is thus intricately linked with the right to freedom of the press.
Kuwait enacted its Right to Access Information Law in 2020, as one of the channels to enhance integrity and transparency, and tackle corruption in public sector undertakings. In principle, the law is intended to guarantee media personnel the freedom to access and publish information on public sector entities, so as to inform the public and hold authorities responsible for their decisions and actions.
But, in practice, journalists, online bloggers, activists, and other media personnel are limited in what they can publish by regulatory laws that govern content published in print, online media, and in broadcasts. For instance, in June 2022, the Information Ministry revoked the licenses of 90 news websites for violating media-related laws, and referred over 70 media outlets to state prosecutors for further legal measures. The ministry said that the decisions aimed to regulate media work, and to control media practice from slipping into media chaos.
Elaborating on the draft media regulatory law on Monday, Minister Al-Mutairi outlined the prohibitions and penalties present in the prevailing media laws, and compared them with revised provisions in the new draft law. He explained, “Currently, we have three existing laws, namely the Press and Publishing Law, the Electronic Publishing Law, and the Audio-Visual Law. In drafting the new law, we examined the underlying standards of existing laws with the focus on media regulation and freedom, and considered past experiences.”
Shedding further light on the draft law, Al-Mutairi said that highlights of the law include, 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 added, “Regarding prohibitions, the first article pertains to insulting the divine entity, the Prophets, the companions, the wives of the Prophet, or the family of the Prophet. As per the current law, the punishment imposed for this violation is a maximum of one-year imprisonment and a fine of KD10,000, or one of the two penalties, on both the editor-in-chief and the writer.
“The new law retains the imprisonment term of not less than one year without invoking any other more severe laws, but the penalty of a fine of not less than KD10,000 and not more than KD40,000 will be imposed only on the writer, without implicating the editor in chief. Additionally, the publishing license will now only be suspended, not outright canceled as before.
“The second prohibition concerns criticizing the person of His Highness the Amir of the country,’ which is present in all three existing laws. However, the new draft abolishes the punishment for the editor-in-chief, and imposes a penalty of imprisonment not exceeding one year, and a fine of not less than KD5,000 and not more than KD20,000, or one of the two punishments, on the violator.
Other infringement of the new media law and the applicable punishments include attributing a statement or action to His Highness the Amir and His Highness the Crown Prince without special written permission from the Amiri Diwan, or the Diwan of His Highness the Crown Prince. Penalty for this violation is a fine of not less than KD5,000 and not more than KD20,000. A similar fine is also imposed on anyone inciting to overthrow the regime.
In addition, a fine of not less than KD3,000 and not more than KD10,000 is imposed for violating public morals; for iInfringing on people’s dignity or religious beliefs and inciting hatred or contempt for any group of society. Similar penalties are also applicable for harming relations between Kuwait and other Arab or friendly countries; and for publishing any data, information or documents that the Constitution or any law deems to be confidential or not to be published.
The minister concluded by stating, “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.” Noting that the private law should complement the public law, and penalties should be based on specific prohibitions, he added, “The new draft law seeks to safeguard journalists, the media, and to promote greater freedoms.”
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, after it reconvenes in late October. The MPs said they would call for protecting the individual’s right to expression and demand the Information Minister to rescind any media laws restricting such freedoms.
Parliamentarians also voiced concerns about the implications for journalists if the draft is passed into law. Lawmaker Jenan Boushehri, said the bill would “jeopardize the essence of democracy”, while parliamentarian Muhalhel Al Mudhaf, said the law goes “against the constitution, its principles, contents and articles”. For his part, lawmaker Saud Alasfoor posted on X (previously Twitter) ”There should be no prison sentence for an opinion”.
The introduction of a new media law is an apt time to reflect on media freedom and the regulatory environment in Kuwait over the years. Known for its dynamism and its avant garde forays in social, cultural and political spheres, Kuwait made an equally bold move into the printing and publishing domain in the late 1920s. Diplomat, poet, and author Abdul Aziz Al-Rushaid, is credited with founding the first Kuwaiti magazine, called Majallat Alkuwait, (Kuwait Magazine), which was printed in Egypt in 1928.
It took another 20 years before a printing press was imported from Iraq in 1947 and facilitated the publication of local content within Kuwait. The following year the government opened its Printing and Publishing Department, and in 1954, the Publication Department published the first official Kuwaiti newspaper, Kuwait Alyoum (Kuwait Today).
Two years later, in 1957 Kuwait enacted its first piece of media legislation aimed at regulating press freedom, five years before the country’s own freedom. In 1961, the same year that Kuwait gained independence, the country also enacted its first Press and Publication Law, which created a marketplace for newspapers. This led to the launch of several privately owned newspapers and magazines catering to different social, political and economic interests.
In 1961, Al-Rai Al-Aam became the first Kuwaiti weekly newspaper, and in the same year the first English newspaper, Kuwait Times was published. One year later, Al-Taleea, an opposition newspaper was established, and in 1965, the second newspaper, Alseyassah was launched. In 1967, Al-Nahda, a social magazine was launched. Following the 2006 Press and Publication Law a slew of newspapers and magazines were launched.
Media freedom to access, print and publish news and opinions is the lifeblood of democracies, as it fosters dissemination of news, views, and information that allow citizens to make informed choices on social, political and economic issues. Media freedom is also a catalyst for driving transformational social changes and ensuring transparency in governance.
The laws that regulate various media outlets, including newspapers, broadcasting stations and, more recently, online media, have changed over time to keep pace with social and technological developments. Nevertheless, the first media law enacted in 1961 has served as the basic template for all regulatory laws enacted since then, due to the overarching nature of clauses in that law.
The versatility of the 1961 media law served the government’s media regulatory needs admirably for 45 years without major amendments. Even when the first revisions to the original law were introduced in 2006, the new law retained much of the wordings from the earlier regulation. And, so does the new draft media regulatory law outlined by the minister last week.
The essence of the 1961 Press and Publication Laws was, “Freedom of printing, writing and publishing is guaranteed, within the limits of this law.” In other words, the local press was confronted with the proverbial ‘Hobson’s choice’; they were free to publish anything they wanted, as long as it was in conformity with the 1961 media regulatory law.