Kuwait, along with Lebanon, is one of the most relaxed Arab countries about press freedom, but local media still censor themselves and foreign publications considered morally and politically unacceptable are censored before going on sale.
Kuwait was traumatised in 1990 by Iraq’s invasion and was glad to see President Saddam Hussein’s regime overthrown in 2003. More than 1,000 journalists, either "embedded" in US forces or "unilateral" (independent), flocked to Kuwait from all over the world from February on to wait for the entry of US and British forces across the desert into Iraq.
The country has become much more democratic since 1991. Islamists have benefited from the government’s tolerance of political dissidence in the form of associations, rather than parties, which remain banned. The authorities now require Islamist members of parliament to distance themselves from terrorism.
Kuwaitis (except for women) voted on 5 July in the 10th parliamentary elections since 1963, when the country became the first Gulf monarchy to introduce a parliamentary system. The election - dominated by issues of economic revival, Islamic laws, unemployment and political reforms - was a victory for Islamist and pro-government candidates, while liberals did very badly.
The Kuwaiti Journalists Association held symbolic elections the same day for women. The government changed the electoral law in October to give them the right to vote and stand in municipal elections, but parliament remained fiercely opposed to various government attempts to grant them political rights.
Unlike other Arab countries, Kuwait has a lively media. The government is in the process of giving up its broadcasting monopoly, but information ministry permission is still needed to set up a media outlet. Religion and articles supporting Saddam Hussein are among taboo subjects..
A journalist freed from prison
Ibtisam Berto Suleiman al-Dakhil was released in April 2003 after nearly 12 years in prison. She was sentenced to death in June 1991 for collaborating with an "enemy" country by working for Al-Nida, the propaganda paper of the then Iraqi occupiers. This was later commuted to life imprisonment. She was pardoned in July 2002 but kept in prison until being deported to France at her request in April 2003.
Four journalists threatened
A letter-bomb sent to Ahmad al-Jarallah, editor of the daily Al-Siyassah and one of the country’s best-known journalists, exploded and injured his secretary in the face on 11 December 2003. Al-Jarallah also runs the English-language daily Arab Times.
The next day, three more letter-bombs, all sent from Lebanon, were intercepted by the Kuwaiti authorities. Their targets were journalists Nasser al-Utaybi (of Al-Siyassah) and Abdallah Muhammad al-Shaykh (Al-Qabas) and Kuwaiti Writers Association secretary-general Abdallah al-Khalaf (Al-Watan) and they gave the sender’s name as Ghassan Charbel, assistant editor of the London-based pan-Arab paper Al-Hayat, who said he and the paper had nothing to do with them.
Top Kuwaiti officials, including the prime minister and the speaker of parliament, denounced the letter-bombs as terrorist attacks on Kuwait’s free press. Information minister Mohamed Abdallah Abu al-Hassan said they may have been sent by people trying to provoke a crisis in the country on the eve of the Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in Kuwait on December 22 and 23.
Harassment and obstruction
On 8 March 2003, the information ministry warned about 1,000 journalists from all over the world waiting in Kuwait for the US-British invasion of Iraq to begin, not to work with the Israeli media on pain of prosecution. US officials said none of journalists accredited with their forces in Kuwait were Israelis. The Kuwaiti Journalists Association welcomed the move to ban any normal ties with "the Zionist enemy."
The issue of visas to journalists wanting to come to Kuwait was suspended on 20 March after the US-British invasion of Iraq began.
Mohammed al-Jassem, editor of the daily Al-Watan, was ordered on 9 June to appear before the public prosecutor for violating article 25 of a 1970 law banning unjustified criticism of the emir and public questioning of his authority, punishable by up to five years in prison. He was released the same day on bail equivalent to 3,000 euros.
Two days earlier, he had addressed a meeting of Arab journalists and criticised government interference with the work of journalists. Later that day, he criticised the government for its handling of upcoming parliamentary elections at a meeting of one of the candidates.
Al-Jassem had been campaigning for many months against a move to impose strict government control of the media. Parliament rejected the proposed amendments shortly before his summons, which many saw as a clear attack on press freedom and which led to an immediate increase in self-censorship in the media, with several papers refusing to print articled criticising the government. For the first time in 11 years, Al-Qabas columnist Mohammed Musaed Al-Saleh had an article (criticising government interference in the elections) rejected by his editors. He then wrote another (about the censorship of the first article) and this appeared in the paper.