Sunday, June 15, 2014

Kuwaiti Journalists Under Damocles' Sword

Rabin Man Shakya

According to Associated Press news  stories published recently, two newspapers have been ordered to stop printing for a second time in less than two months over articles about a secret investigation into allegations of a coup plot to overthrow the Kuwaiti monarchy.

The newspaper Al Watan reported online last week that a judge ordered its print edition and that of the newspaper Alam-al Yawm to stop publishing for five days because they had violated a media blackout of the investigation.

In the trajectory of press freedom scenario, Kuwait still ranks among the freest countries in the Middle East and North Africa region. In 2013 press freedom index of the Reporters Without Borders, Kuwait was ranked 77th out of 179 countries whereas it fell 13 places in the RWB index and is now ranked 91st out of 180 countries.

But a clearer picture is emerging to explain how Kuwait is dealing with the dissenting journalists over the years. In fact, a number of journalists and online activists have been incarcerated for months and years in Kuwait for what they wrote or broadcast.

It is illegal to criticize Emir and Crown Prince of Kuwait as the law allows authorities to fine journalists upto 300,000 dinars (1 million dollar) for criticizing the emir or the crown prince, or misrepresenting what they say, and impose sentences to 10 years in prison on journalists who insult God, the prophet of Islam, or the the prophet Mohammad's wives or companions. This, no doubt, is a draconian law reminiscent of the authoritarian royal regime in Nepal.

Under such circumstances, the challenges facing the Kuwaiti media and social media are indeed formidable. Given the draconian law that prohibits journalists to criticize the emir and the crown prince, it seems that the Kuwaiti journalists and netizens are always under a sword of Damocles.

News stories in Al-Watan's 13 and 14 April issues claimed that former senior officials were involved in the alleged coup conspiracy. "The prosecutor's ban on media coverage of this case is a grave violation of freedom of information", said Soazig Dollet, head of the RWB Middle East and North Africa desk. "The absurd and iniquitous suspension of those two news outlets again shows that the authorities are bent on controlling the media, in this case, suppressing coverage of a sensitive political investigation."

Palpably, Kuwait has come under sharp criticism from organizations like Reporters Without Borders for the treatment of the dissenting journalists and newspapers.

It is to be noted that 14 Arabic and 3 English language newspapers circulate in this tiny emirate where the state owns nine local radio stations and five television stations. And there are, at present, 16 privately owned television stations in this oil-rich Gulf nation.

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