Kuwait Defamation Laws
When it comes to defamation, Kuwait is a contradiction. On one hand, the Middle Eastern nation is lauded for having the most free speech friendly defamation laws in the region. On the other hand, a death sentence is a real possibility for those convicted of religious defamation.
An Overview of The Kuwaiti Government
Kuwait is a constitutional heredity emirate, meaning it’s ruled by “royals” who can appoint and dismiss prime ministers as they please. Most government officials are Sunni Muslims and statutes are based on Sharia law.
Kuwait boasts a large private media industry and political reportage is not merely a sock-puppet show produced by the ruling faction. That said, the Ministry of Information has the power to ban books, films and periodicals, though the department rarely exercises the right. The ministry also grants the necessary licenses needed to operate a media outlet.
While Kuwaiti reporters are considered the most outspoken of the Islamic states, journalists admit to self-censoring and rarely rail too hard on the royal family, heads of government or their families.
How “Open” Is The Internet In Kuwait?
Being a country based on Islamic law, Kuwait does censor their Internet. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) operating in the country are required to block any webpage with anti-Islamic, Islamic extremist or pornography content. Certain types of political websites are also outlawed. Internet café owners must keep identifying information on everybody who uses their services.
The Good: Best Defamation Reputation In Town
Reporters Without Boarders ranks Kuwait as “1st place among Gulf states in terms of respect for individual freedoms and free press.” In 2006, officials passed the Press and Publications Law, which abolished prison sentences for civil defamation. The statute also established a court order requirement for any government department or group looking to censure a media outlet.
The Neutral: Sharia Law Means No Blasphemy
No two countries are the same. Worldviews abound. United States’ citizens value the First Amendment and freedom of religion. Kuwaitis value Sharia law and Islamic icons. As such, speaking ill of God or any Muslim prophet is against the law in Kuwait.
The Bad: Some Slander & Libel Lawsuits Free Speech States Question
The 2006 Press and Publications law also had its bad points. In addition to outlawing criminal civil defamation, it also raised penalties on blasphemy to 20,000 dinars ($72,000). The statute also stipulated a 1-year jail sentence for anybody convicted of religious defamation.
In 2010, approximately 600 people were brought up on charges under the 2006 press and Publication law — a significant increase from the previous year. The same year, the Kuwait City bureau of Al-Jazeera and Scope TV – a popular privately owned network in Kuwait — were shut down for several months.
The Ugly: Capital Punishment Reinstated For Religious Defamation
At the end of December 2012, Kuwaiti officials passed a law declaring that Muslims found guilty of slandering Islam would be sentenced to death. If, however, the defendant repents in court, they’d escape capital punishment and instead be sentenced to 2 to 5 years in prison. Zero leniency is granted for second-time offenders, though. Non-Muslims accused of the same crime are not given the death penalty, but instead thrown in jail for no less than 10 years and/or forced to pay a $36,000.
Not everyone is happy with the law. For obvious reasons, free speech advocates strongly oppose the bill – but they’re not the only ones. Shiite Muslims – a minority in the country – fell the new blasphemy law is bias because many of their venerated prophets are not included on the protected list.
May 2013 Update: Online free speech rights are diminishing quickly in Kuwait. Recently, a political activist was jailed for talking poorly of Kuwait’s ruler on Twitter. Since the Arab Spring, officials in the country have come down hard on Internet opining, largely labeling what would probably be considered “free speech” in the West as “defamation.”