Early in January, Kuwait sentenced online activist and journalist Ayyad al-Harbi to two years in prison for posting tweets deemed “insulting” to Kuwait’s emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah. The sentencing came a mere day after another Kuwaiti Twitter user received the same sentence for a tweet that “stabbed the rights and powers of the emir.”
The move has surprised many international critics, as Kuwait as long been known as one of the more democratic and open countries in the Middle East. However, the crackdowns follow a growing trend of squashing dissent across the Middle East by powerful governments interested in avoiding their own Arab Springs.
Kuwait’s growing crackdown
Kuwait is not alone in cracking down on tweets that it deems offensive or politically sensitive. Countries like Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia have all sent Twitter users to prison in an effort to monitor and crush dissent. Bahrain has been one of the harshest in its crackdown as it attempts to block an Arab Spring-style uprising amid widespread international criticism.
However, Kuwait’s willingness to prosecute Twitter users comes as a particular surprise in light of its image as a relatively open, stable democracy – purportedly the best of its kind in the Middle East. Freedom House’s annual Freedom of the Press report listed Kuwait as “Partly Free” – the only Gulf country to receive a rating that was not “Not Free.”
But Kuwait’s recent actions against Twitter users become particularly relevant in light of ongoing unrest due to the Arab Spring. Kuwait has long had laws guaranteeing freedom of speech and the press, but it prohibits speech or the publication of material that insults God, the prophets, Islam, or the emir; as well as the disclosure of secret or private information or speech calling for the overthrow of the regime. However, despite these seemingly harsh laws, Kuwait’s media has largely been regarded as more critical and outspoken than others in the region, and Kuwait’s Ministry of Information had previously been relatively passive in interfering with or restricting the spread of information.
Nevertheless, Kuwait began to enforce these laws at the beginning of the Arab Spring. A few days before Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak stepped down from office, Kuwait’s Interior Ministry held and interrogated prominent Twitter activist Mishari Buyabis. Later, in September 2011, nine months into the Arab Spring, Kuwait’s parliament was presented with amendments to its press laws that would prescribe harsher penalties for critical speech and implement a better monitoring system for violations.
Most recently, Kuwait has come under criticism for allegedly paying $250 million (link via al-Rai in Arabic) to British software company Gamma to better monitor dissent on Twitter, signaling its intent to further strengthen and widen its crackdown on activists.
Still a beacon of human rights?
Kuwait’s Twitter crackdown follows similar trends among other Gulf states like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. These countries, some of whom have experienced Arab Spring-style protests – Bahrain in particular – have been very harsh in terms of oppressing dissent. By following this trend, Kuwait moves in the direction of becoming a more oppressive state and risks its somewhat undeserved reputation as a beacon of free speech in the Middle East.
Powerful governments in the Gulf will continue to squash dissent on Twitter in an effort to retain their grip on power. The only seeming check to this power is opposition – opposition both within the country and in the international community. The international community, in particular, has done little to challenge these violations of international human rights norms, and in some cases, has even encouraged the government’s crackdown. Notably, the British government recently reached a multi-million dollar agreement with the Kuwaiti government to enhance Kuwait’s homeland security, including a huge boost in online surveillance systems. The opposition, on the other hand, has continued to fight the crackdown, organizing protests and continuing to criticize the emir in the face of oppression.
Kuwait, with little forceful international opposition, is making its way down a dangerous path. By continuing to strengthen its fight against Twitter and in the process disenfranchising activists and opposition, Kuwait has signaled its intent to make an example of those who speak out, and as a result slowly destroy its image as an open democracy in the Middle East.
– Molly Korab
(Featured photo: People’s Open Graphics. Creative Commons, Flickr)