by JANE KINNINMONT for ISLAMiCommentary on FEBRUARY 15, 2013:
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.
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.
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.
Chatham House, home of the Royal Institute of International Affairs and based in London, is a world-leading source of independent analysis, informed debate and influential ideas on how to build a prosperous and secure world for all. See Chatham House Gulf research pages for more on this region.
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