by Abdullah Alkhonaini
KUWAIT: The month of November marks the 42th annual Kuwait National Book Fair, a cultural event that also coincide with annual criticism of censorship in the social and legal framework. This year’s book fair have reached a new level of censorship; the inspectors using digital tablets to make sure no banned books are on the tables of the participants. Several MPs made statements opposing the Ministry of Information censorship actions on their social media accounts regarding the issue.
Last year during Ramadan, the MOI announced that a team from the ministry will be working around the clock to monitor and censor TV shows and programs that will be aired on the national channel during the month of Ramadan. In reality, all scripts and recorded TV programs are monitored prior to their approval to go into production phase. With that said, the ministry formed a team to check post production, and consequently adds up a new layer to censorship on media.
Censorship comes in many forms: 1) Prior restraint censorship, that comes in a form of a committee or an authority to check the video or text before allowing it to the public. 2) Post publication penalty, powered by the legislation, and in most cases for the penalty to take effect a prior judicial procedure has to be followed. 3) Self-censorship, which means limiting one’s own action for the fear of aggravating the government or offending the public.
Kuwait regulations with regards to censorship varies in form and penalties. Ten years ago, the introduction of the Press & Publication and Audio-Visual Media laws was considered a progressive step toward a higher margin in freedom of expression. The new laws abolished prior restraint censorship of the locally-printed newspapers, publications or live TV programs. Also, newspapers and TV channels can’t be shut down except by a court order, and annulled prison sentences for journalists and editors-in-chief except for blasphemy and defamation of the Emir. However with those changes, the imposed penalties were raised up to 3000KD and 10,000KD. Also more prohibited topics were added to the penalty section with broad terminologies that can be interpreted in many ways, for example ‘not to promote moral indecency, or contradict with national unity, social or political system’.
Within two years nine newspapers and around twelve TV channels got licensed. These changes in the laws have shifted society’s perspective toward what can and cannot be said on TV or published in a newspaper. Court cases related to violations of the new laws were on the rise.
Printed books were regarded differently. In 2005, when the draft law of Press & Publication was still in discussion in the Parliament, imported printed books were considered a threat to the social fabric of Kuwait’s society. After twelve meetings between the MPs and local representatives in the parliament committee, it was agreed that imported books would be examined by a ‘Censorship of Publications Board’ under the Ministry of Information. This left the locally printed books in Kuwait free of prior restraint censorship; penalties are only applied after publish if the case were taken to court, and the same applies to the press and newspapers.
The different limitations of what can be said or published in the press, books, and television defies the purpose of ‘freedom of expression and opinion’, which is granted in Kuwait’s Constitution articles 35 & 36, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights article 19, and article 26 in the Arab Charter on Human Rights. For example a Kuwaiti novel (The Bamboo Stalk) that mentions Bedoun (stateless) through its pages was banned from shooting the TV series adaptation in Kuwait however the printed book is allowed. This led the production team to shoot the series in Dubai instead, even after airing the show on a privately owned local TV channel it was censored because of some scenes related to questioning of religion and bedoun, respectively. Different media outlets are subject to different censorship criteria as the constitutional expert Prof. Mohammad Alfaily noted in an interview that the censorship of books is not equal to the newspapers despite the fact that both deals with similar topics and are subject to the same law. Another recent example Prof. Shaikha Aljassim was charged with blasphemy in the an interview aired on ATV (Alshahid) channel, three months later charges were dismissed. Prosecutor stated that not all discussions of religion can be considered blasphemous and that freedom of speech should be protected.
In 2015, the parliament voted and approved a new law for Cyber Crimes that includes a section for social media and imposed penalties and prison sentence to any infringement of prohibited matters or issues mentioned in the Press & Publishing Law on social media. It was followed by an amendment to the second article of the Press & Publishing Law to include digital media (websites & social media) to the definition of ‘printed media’, therefore including it in the post publication penalties. This affected Kuwait’s status regionally and globally. Kuwait ranks #103 out of 180 countries in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index (dropped 13% from last year ranked 90/179).
Imposed censorship and the confusion of different regulations of what can be said on TV, published in a book or an article, shared on social media, or a blog created a culture of censorship and weakens the freedom of expression and opinion in Kuwait. In recent years neighbor countries took steps into abolishing prior restraint censorship on annually book fairs while in Kuwait censorship on the local annual book fair has been increasing.
In the age of digital media, regulations on censorship should be revised. What happened ten years ago with the press (abolishing prior restraint censorship) must be done to other media outlets. Raising public awareness is a crucial first step to ensure that different opinions are not considered a threat to national unity or the social fabric of this country. Also lobbying the MPs and representatives of the government to revise the regulations would be a step towards a way out of this problem. The culture of censorship is one of a reactive nature and not a proactive one so we must relinquish our hope in its effort in serving society for the better.