In 2002, Kuwait marked the 11th anniversary of its liberation from seven months of Iraqi occupation. Along with Bahrain, it is the only Gulf emirate with an elected parliament and the government has to oversee an uneasy cohabitation of liberals and Islamic fundamentalists.
Press freedom is guaranteed by the constitution, but religion and the person of the emir and the heads of friendly states are among the taboo subjects listed in the very strict Press and Publications Law. Those who contravene it can be jailed for several years for insulting remarks or allusions to God, the Prophet and his disciples. But Kuwaiti journalists have much more freedom than their Saudi colleagues. Amendments to the press law to replace prison sentences by fines have been under consideration since 2000 but were not passed in 2002.
New information on a journalist killed before 2002
The Kuwait criminal court sentenced policeman Khaled al-Azmi to death on 4 February for murdering the country’s first woman journalist, Houdaya Sultan al-Salem, publisher and editor of the political weekly Al-Majales, on 20 March 2001. Al-Azmi said he had killed her because she had written that the traditional dance of the women of the country’s influential Al-Awasem tribe was sexually suggestive.
But others suggested she may have been killed for complaining to the emir about police behaviour towards her after an article in the paper criticising the police. Al-Majales had also reported several times on embezzlement of public funds. The appeals court confirmed the death sentence on 8 June.
Two journalists imprisoned
At least two journalists had been in prison since 1991. Fawwaz Mohammed al-Awadi Bessisso and Ibtisam Berto Suleiman al-Dakhil were condemned to death in June that year for working for Al-Nida, the propaganda newspaper put out by the then Iraqi occupation forces. Seventeen journalists on the paper were arrested and tried at the time in conditions that violated international legal norms (including hasty court martials, secret evidence, no defence statements and allegations of torture).
The two death sentences for collaborating with an enemy country were commuted to life imprisonment but despite pressure from human rights organisations, the two journalists were not freed under the annual 25 February amnesty marking the liberation of Kuwait from the Iraqi occupation. Al-Dakhil was pardoned in July 2002 but she was kept in prison to await probable deportation to Iraq.
Pressure and obstruction
A group of four Kuwait lawyers sued the pan-Arab TV station Al-Jazeera for defamation on 14 February. On the station’s well-known live programme Al-Itijah al-Muakis (Opposite Direction), some guests had accused Kuwait of being "a thorn in the side of Arab solidarity," while the Egyptian writer Sayed Nassar said Kuwait had "stolen" Iraqi oil before Iraq invaded it in 1990.
The station pointed out that a Kuwaiti guest had immediately responded to this criticism, but on 12 November, a civil court ordered the station to pay $16,000 in damages to the lawyers, who have filed another suit claiming $65,000 for "moral prejudice."
The information ministry phoned the local Al-Jazeera correspondent, Saad al-Anezi, on 3 November to order him to close the station’s office on grounds that the TV was "biased." This came after it had broadcast a report the previous day that a quarter of Kuwait’s territory had been sealed off to allow US-Kuwaiti military manoeuvres to take place there. The government said the report harmed the country’s reputation.
A few days later, foreign minister Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah confirmed the office closure. Information minister Sheikh Ahmed al-Fahd al-Sabah said that while Al-Jazeera was a better station than others, it was not objective when it came to Kuwait.
About 50 cybercafés were closed by the authorities on 14 May as part of a crackdown on access to pornographic websites, which are strictly banned in all the Gulf states. Operating licences were cancelled and many cybercafés inspected. Communications minister Hamed Khajah said those closed could reopen as soon as new regulations came into force.
The November-December issue of the pan-Arab literary magazine Al-Adab, which discussed censorship in Egypt, was banned from distribution in the country. The editor of the magazine, which is based in Beirut, said the authorities were afraid readers would make a link between imprisoned writers, censored "obscene" literature and the hunting down of Islamic fundamentalists in Egypt and the situation in Kuwait.