Publish or perish in the Kuwaiti press

By: Rania Maktabi, University of Oslo

Report from Kuwait, 26 March 2015

A visit to renowned Kuwaiti newspaper al-Qabas (est. 1972) is always rewarding. Pick a couple of keywords, state a date, and the archives are a wizard of knowledge. This might be changing in the future amidst self-imposed censorship among journalists and editors.

Mr. Hamza Olayyan, Chief of the Information Center at al-Qabas – owned by several prominent old-stock Kuwaiti merchant families – was the brain behind the digitalization of the newspaper’s archives in 1995. These days the newspaper is entering a new E-dawn. Electronic upgrading is under way to adjust to a new digitalized archival practice.

In 2013, two years into the Arab Uprisings, Olayyan published the book “Prohibited from publication: The history of newspaper surveillance in Kuwait” (mamnu’ min al-nashr: tarikh ar-raqaba fil-kuwait). Little did he know then that he would soon become one of those who ensure that incoming comments and articles to al-Qabas “do not breach certain limits”, as he formulates it.

Mr. Hamza Olayyan, Chief of the Information Center at al-Qabas daily (est. 1972).
Mr. Hamza Olayyan, Chief of the Information Center at al-Qabas daily (est. 1972).

Together with legal advisors who work fulltime at the newspaper, Olayyan has recently been required to edit and scan commentaries for expressions and arguments that may cause trouble. Serious trouble. Such as the closing down in January 2015 of neighboring newspaper al-Watan (est. in 1974) and owned by Khalifa Ali al-Sabbah, a member of the ruling Sabbah family. Al-Watan and Alam al-Youm – another local newspaper – had since April 2014 been under the radar of public prosecutors for showing a videotape which allegedly revealed government officials plotting a coup. Both newspapers were shut down for two weeks, and then again for five days in June 2014, before al-Watan was finally ordered to close down last month.

Despite its shut-down, al-Watan publishes its electronic newspaper daily while the case is pending in court until 12th April.

Shari’ as-Sahafa, the Kuwaiti equivalent to British Fleet street, here featuring al-Qabas to the left, al-Hadaf in the middle, and currently shut down al-Watan to the far right.

The Arab press in general, and the Kuwaiti in particular, have a long history of surveillance, argues Olayyan in his book, and points out different forms of censorship, not least the most widespread form – that of self-censorship.

In the past few years self-censorship is heavily linked to economic interests. Journalists and commentators find themselves, for example, increasingly unable to criticize industrial projects. They are also less willing to shed light on grey zones when it comes to business deals and construction projects, for instance. In the book, Olayyan explains that newspapers cannot survive without financial muscles from advertisements. Companies and owners of business enterprises who might be offended by critical views on their projects are likely to respond by refraining from using troublesome newspapers as marketing channel.

Other aspects related to surveillance have changed since the 2011 Arab Uprisings in Kuwait. The Kuwaiti press has gone through many phases of surveillance, and the current one is yet another. There is clearly less room for expressing ideas and opinions which were common and tolerated a few years ago. Qualities such as openheartedness and fearlessness, which researchers and observers on the Gulf have found admirable among Kuwaitis, are obviously not in vogue these days.

Abdellatif al-Duaij, a prolific writer in al-Qabas laments golden days gone in a recent article entitled “What have we left” (esh buqa lna, 17 March 2015). In a comment he points out the regrettable stance which the Kuwaiti government has chosen in face of current regional dangers where tiny Kuwait is encircled by regional superpowers Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq. Domestic forces and external dangers have succeeded in seriously curbing freedom of expression in Kuwait, he points out, adding that the need for “cooperation” between institutions seriously affects freedom in general, and in particular freedom of opinion and expression.

The Kuwaiti press has some credentials to protect. Since 2008, Kuwait and Lebanon have alternately been ranked among the Arab countries that score highest according to an index published yearly by Reporters without Borders. The 2015 World Press Freedom Index places Kuwait sharply in the middle as number 90 out of a total 180 states. While this position may not seem impressive at first sight, it is noteworthy that Kuwait is ranked highest among all Arab states, followed by Lebanon (ranked as 98) and Qatar (ranked as 115). In other words, Kuwaiti journalists in particular, and the Kuwaiti press in general, have standards to defend amidst the current tightened fist on freedom of expression, not the least historically.

A short glimpse back in time sheds some light on the position of al-Qabas in the Arab press. In addition to Egyptian novelist and Nobel prize-winner Naguib Mahfouz who was a regular contributor to al-Qabas, the Kuwaiti newspaper can boast of having had the Arab world’s most cherished cartoonist, Palestinian Naji al-Ali (b. 1936 – d. 1987) as part of its staff. Echoing pre-Charlie Hebdo times, al-Ali’s legacy sheds light on the thin line between comics and tragedy. Expelled from Kuwait in 1985, he continued to work in the London-headquarters of al-Qabas where he was gunned down outside his office. No one has – until date – been charged for his murder, although allegations have been linked to internal PLO rows, and a pronounced discomfort with al-Ali’s sharp criticism of Arab leadership by means of a drawing pen.

Naji al-Ali’s legacy and his trademark – handala – the little boy with the crossed-over hands, is painted on the walls of the headquarters of the Kuwaiti newspaper al-Qabas. For more on al-Ali’s work, see Joe Sacco’s “A child of Palestine” published by Verso Books, 2009.

Al-Ali represents criticism against rulers during the heydays of Arab nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s. Those who raise critical voices in the Gulf states today use other means, most importantly social media. Global spotlights have since last week been cast on Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström’s statement that Saudi Arabia should improve its human rights records with reference to the oil-rich country’s conviction of human rights’ activist and blogger Raef Badawi.

Kuwait has also had its own social media martyrs in human rights’ activist and blogger Mohammed al-Ajmi arrested for ten days in August 2014 for stepping on the toes of Salafist religious leader Hamad al-Uthman, and for allegedly defaming the Kuwaiti ruling family.

Prohibition against criticizing religion and religious figures has in the past two years been increasingly extended into being seen and criminal acts that threatens the “sacredness” of ruling figures. The conviction and imprisonment of two young Kuwaitis – Badr al-Rashidi (jailed between June 2012 and August 2014) and Lawrence al-Rashidi (jailed between October 2011 and August 2014) – alarmed Kuwaitis of the length and scale of the punishment the regime was capable of exerting. The young men were eventually pardoned by the Emir, but the law prohibiting the insulting of sacred figures –including the self-sanctified members of the ruling family – remains.

Other new methods of striking fear in the hearts of Kuwaitis who might think too loudly, or want to express – on paper – disagreement or discontent, is legal exiling through the withdrawal of citizenship certificates which 18 citizens were subject to in September 2014. The sentencing of prominent political figure and MP Musallam al-Barrak, leader of the oppositional Popular Action Front (harakat al-amal as-sha’bi) to five years’ imprisonment following allegations that he insulted the ruler in Kuwait, is yet another indication of a tighter fist around those who oppositional figures.

“The press” (al-i’lam), according to al-Qabas cartoonist Fadel al-Ra’ies), 17 March 2015 featuring an articulate Kuwaiti raising his voice, and being portrayed as a bully.

These days, Kuwaiti cartoonists are perhaps less sharp in their criticism against power holders than al-Ali’s outright criticism by means of a pen. They nevertheless unleash some of the frustration and discontent with the current narrower and drier pastures of press freedom in the Emirate.

Kuwait may not maintain its position as the Arab world’s leading nation when it comes to freedom of expression in next year’s World Freedom Index. If it does…. well, what would that tell us about how seriously crippled the Arab press is in post-revolutionary times?

More on the Kuwaiti press:

Nordenson, Jon (2010). We Want Five! – Kuwait, the internet, and the public sphere. Lambert Academic Publishing.

Selvik, Kjetil. 2011. Elite Rivalry in a Semi-Democracy: The Kuwaiti press scene. In Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 47, issue 3, pp. 477-496.

Selvik, Kjetil, Jon Nordenson and Tewodros Kebede (forthcoming). Print media liberalization and electoral coverage bias in Kuwait. The Middle East Journal.