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Operation Roll Back Kuwaiti Freedom

This wealthy Gulf monarchy used to be a bright spot for freedom of speech in the Middle East. No Longer.

Published in: Foreign Policy

In a region where reprisals against journalists who fail to toe the government line may include imprisonment and torture, Kuwait has been a welcome exception. The country consistently ranks as having the freest media in the Arab world, in both Reporters Without Borders' and Freedom House's indices of press freedom. With a population of only around 3 million, it has more than 15 daily newspapers that publish editorials and columns from local politicians, activists, academics, and analysts. But Kuwait's relatively liberal media and public dialogue is just that: relative. It's also in decline.

The government is growing increasingly willing to act in ways that belie the country's reputation for tolerating heated political debate. Last month, prosecutors began the trial of Mohammad al-Jasim, a journalist accused of endangering national security. Jasim, trained as a lawyer, is one of the government's most vocal critics and has faced more than 20 separate charges for libel and slander of government officials based on his writings and public statements. In an October 2009 article, he informed the current prime minister, appointed by the emir of Kuwait and also a member of the ruling family: "You must admit that you lack leadership charisma ... that you contributed in creating the people's current negative view of your abilities and that you lack adequate experience to lead the government."

Based on the government's most recent charges, which elevate charges to national security offenses, Jasim spent 49 days in pretrial detention, including a brief stay in a military hospital following a weeklong hunger strike, before he was released on bail. At his trial, which resumes in September, he will be forced to defend himself from charges that he was "instigating to overthrow the regime" and attempting to "dismantle the foundations of Kuwaiti society."

These accusations initially stemmed from 32 entries on his well-known Arabic-language blog Mizan, where Jasim has lambasted the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of the government and called for Kuwaiti Emir Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah to follow through on his promises of democratic reform. The charges were also sparked by Jasim's books, including one titled The Spirit of the Constitution. Jasim's writings consist solely of peaceful political commentary; none advocates for overthrowing the government by force. Following calls for his release in the local media and demonstrations by activists, the government issued a gag order prohibiting the press from covering his trial. Although Jasim has since been released from detention on bail, the ban on media coverage continues.

The case raises serious questions about the current government's commitment to gradual liberalization. During the review of human rights in Kuwait at the U.N. Human Rights Council in May, a Kuwaiti government delegation cited freedom of expression as a high point among the country's achievements. Observers also point to May 2009's election of four women to parliament -- the first women elected to public office in the country's history -- as further evidence of democratic reform. But while members of parliament and civil society groups are pushing for further change, Kuwait's emir and key members of his family still hold the power to block any reforms.

Jasim's prosecution is part of a steady encroachment over the past year on Kuwaitis' freedom of expression, the right to assemble peacefully, and the right to criticize public officials' performance. In October 2009, prosecutors charged two members of parliament with slander -- the first for criticizing the prime minister, a member of the ruling family, and the second for accusing the health minister of corruption. Each was convicted and fined more than $10,000.

In January, following a report on a local television station that was deemed insulting to a local tribe, Kuwait's Information Ministry proposed amendments to the press law to set harsher penalties for slander and defamation and to impose criminal penalties for speech that "threatened national unity."

In March, the government arrested and deported virtually overnight more than 30 Egyptian nationals who supported former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei, an advocate of political reform in Egypt and possible presidential candidate. The Egyptians, many of whom were longtime residents in Kuwait, had simply organized a meeting to discuss his campaign. When I spoke with the interior minister, he justified the deportation based on Kuwait's public gatherings law, saying that foreigners are not allowed to demonstrate in Kuwait. The application of this law, however, has been extremely selective: Just months earlier, expatriate Iranians demonstrated in front of their embassy following Iran's presidential election, without police interference.

Khalid al-Fadhala, the head of Kuwait's National Democratic Alliance -- a liberal political party -- was also recently prosecuted for criminal libel and slander of the country's prime minister based on comments he made during a public rally accusing the prime minister of money laundering. After a trial court found Fadhala guilty and sentenced him to three months in prison, an appeals court on July 13 ordered his release from detention, ruling that the 10 days he served was adequate punishment. On the same day, in another courtroom, Jasim was acquitted of a prior criminal charge of slandering the prime minister.

Although the recent rulings show that the judiciary has begun to take note, pushing back against encroachments on free expression, Kuwait's activists and media remain under threat. When it comes to freedom of the press, and its approach to human rights more broadly, too many Kuwaiti decision-makers focus on superficial attempts to polish their country's reputation abroad, while ignoring vital legal protections. When challenged, the government falls back on arguments of state sovereignty, essentially ordering international actors to mind their own business.

Such responses do little for real progress on human rights in the country. During the past year, Kuwait has shown some promising signs of reform on select issues, issuing a significantly overhauled and more protective labor law, removing some of the existing barriers to women's rights, and pledging to provide greater legal protections for those with disabilities.

But the government remains skittish and highly sensitive to criticism, whether from foreign governments, international actors, or local activists and writers. As Jasim's case demonstrates, these individuals have borne the brunt of its response, including aggressive criminal prosecutions for slander and defamation directed at those who comment on the work of government officials, crackdowns on public gatherings, and gag orders on the local media. Rather than choosing reprisals and repression, Kuwait's rulers would do well to focus their efforts on upholding the country's human rights commitments and eliminate criminal prosecutions for nonviolent speech. By permitting critics to speak their minds freely, the government will do more to protect its credibility than any damage such criticisms could cause.

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