The unpredicted fallout from the coronavirus pandemic shortly after the new sultan ascended the throne not only raises the stakes associated with reform implementation but also will test the population’s ability to shoulder new economic burdens.
On August 19, Kuwait’s Parliament amended the country’s press and publication law marking an easing of decades of tight government control over publishing. Kuwait has banned nearly 5,000 books in the last seven years, inviting scrutiny from international and local literary organizations.
Gulf Arab states have spent billions of dollars to become literary beacons and cultural hubs, hosting one of the region’s largest book fairs and numerous cultural events. Yet their self-promotion and global outreach are contradicted by strict press and publication laws that regulate the cultural scene. This censorship raises substantial questions about the level of intellectual and cultural freedom in the Gulf.
Kuwait Relaxing Restrictions
Although the 2020 World Press Freedom Index ranked Kuwait the highest among the Gulf Arab states in press freedom, publications have been strictly controlled by the Ministry of Information’s censorship committee. “The history of book censorship in Kuwait is full of funny paradoxes and contradictions. It has put Kuwait’s book fair in a miserable situation,” said Ali al-Sanad, a Kuwaiti TV host and professor of Islamic history.
With the previous laws of 1961 and 2006, “books were presumably banned until the author went to court to prove that his book shouldn’t be banned” according to Layla al-Ammar, a Kuwaiti researcher and author of “The Pact We Made.” She continued, “The amendment corrects this illogical process. This, rightly, puts the onus on the person offended by the material instead of the author.”
Ammar suggests that strict censorship may be a result of Kuwait’s robust Parliament. “The National Assembly has been decidedly more conservative than we’ve seen in a long time. If we didn’t have such a strong Parliament, I doubt the original law would’ve passed,” she said. However, Islamic books have also been banned by the committee, including books that were uncontroversial to both Sunnis and Shias, noted Abdullah al-Failakawi, a Kuwaiti poet.
“Kuwaitis have been vocal about banning books since the enactment of the publication law in 2006, but people thought it was almost impossible to reform these deep-rooted institutionalized provisions in our laws,” said Abdullah al-Khonaini, a Kuwaiti activist and scholar.
Activism against book censorship intensifies as the annual book fair approaches, drawing local and international attention to Kuwait’s International Fair. In 2018, a group of activists protested at the entrance of the book fair against the banning of thousands of books. There was an effective grassroot movement of different groups hosting events, calling for protests, and launching social media campaigns through hashtags such as #Banned in Kuwait to raise awareness about the issue. Khonaini explained, “It was a collective, unorganized effort, including formal and informal civil society organizations, that started on Twitter in 2015. But we officially started lobbying in 2018.”
After the recent law made it from the parliamentary committee and was debated in a public session, the majority of members of parliament voted in favor of it. “The new amendment shifts the authority of censorship to the judiciary. Hence, a verdict is needed to ban a book,” Khonaini said. But he suggested that it would “hopefully lead to fewer restrictions on cultural and intellectual spaces in Kuwait.”
However, not everything activists lobbied for ended up in the final amendment. Publications are still subject to other restrictive laws and penal codes, including media, digital media, cybercrimes, national unity, and other laws. “As elections loom, we need a complete overhaul in order to reach a practical level of freedom of expression,” Khonaini added. Members of parliament were six votes short on eliminating penalties and prison sentences for violations of these laws.
“While the change in the law is a positive and important step in what is still a fight for greater freedom of expression, I am still curious what the verdict is on the 4,500 plus books that were banned while the law was in effect. Does the ban automatically lift? There are still some matters that remain unclear,” Ammar said.
There remains significant public and parliamentarian support for regulating publications. Some Kuwaitis believe the state has a duty to maintain “intellectual security,” to protect peoples’ morality, and stability of the country as a whole. Freedom of expression should not be a cloak under which anarchists hide, asserted Bassam al-Shatti, professor of sharia at Kuwait University.
The practice of strict regulation over publications, online or print, is not exclusive to Kuwait. While most Gulf Arab countries’ publication laws acknowledge the importance of freedom of the press, some articles of these laws explicitly restrict a broad range of activities framed by the government as immoral, harmful to national unity and the social fabric, or contrary to state interests, all of which are subject to different interpretations. This ambiguity leaves institutions responsible for implementing these provisions with plenty of room for interpretation to restrict content. In some states, these laws seek to support the construction of a national narrative presented by the governments and deployed to ensure citizens adhere to what the state considers acceptable.
Laws Regulating the Press and Publications
Sharjah’s annual book fair is one of the largest cultural events in the region, attracting more than 2 million visitors annually. Officials from the National Media Council, the United Arab Emirates’ body that oversees the press and publications, has promised no censorship at the annual book fairs. However, the UAE has recently passed a law, in addition to the 1980 Press and Publication Act, that strictly regulates media content – print, digital, audio, and visual. The law forbids “offending” the economic system of the country and requires respect for the directives and policies of the state. It extends censorship to online media content by establishing the Website Control Committee that prohibited a long list of activities, such as “disrespecting the UAE’s political system and policies, culture, and harming national identity.”
The law was welcomed by some Emiratis, who believe that “content regulation is about ensuring that what is disseminated is done so in a way that protects our society.”
In Saudi Arabia, articles of the press law require that publications adhere to sharia law, and that critical works should maintain an “objective and constructive criticism,” and do not “lead to a breach of public security, public policy, or serving foreign interests that conflict with the national interest.” But deciding what may be “constructive” or “breaches public interest” is challenging, especially since the kingdom has no written penal code, rather law enforcement relies on “elastic concepts of criminal legislation.” A few years ago the Ministry of Culture and Information confiscated hundreds of books displayed in a coffee shop in Riyadh. After the incident provoked a public debate on social media, officials claimed the books weren’t cleared by the ministry.
Oman likewise operates under a 1984 press and publication law that has a multitude of restrictions, including what’s perceived by the state as defamation, violating privacy, or damaging the national interest. Also, any publication or reporting “that would hurt the economy of the country” is banned. At least 30 books were banned from Muscat’s book fair in 2019. Sulaiman al-Mamari, an Omani writer and media figure, said, “The ministerial committee used to ban books during the fair, asking publishers to take them off the bookshelves.”
In response to critics of those regulations, the former communications minister clarified that some social, political, and religious aspects must be maintained, as Oman is known to be a nation of peace and tolerance and that approach should be apparent in the sultanate’s policies.
Moreover, numerous book clubs and book talks organized by civil society organizations have been restricted in Oman. “The only cultural spaces allowed were the ones led by organizations affiliated – or that followed – the government’s line,” added Mamari. “We did have a vibrant cultural civil society movement before 2012 that organized protests, signed petitions, and hosted events to reform the press and publication law along with other demands,” he said. “Due to the restrictions placed on public cultural spaces in the last few years, activists have resorted to social media and other online platforms to express their concerns about censorship,” said Mamari.
Bahrain revised its 1979 press law in 2002 under the new constitution. However, “the law still regulates all matters of publication and remains one of the most restrictive laws in the region and includes criminal penalties for publication-related offenses,” noted Salma Waheedi, a Bahraini attorney based in the United States and the associate director of the Law and Society in the Muslim World program at Harvard University.
“Prohibited content is defined quite broadly and includes any material that offends Islam, national unity, or any state institution, among a much longer list of restrictions drafted broadly and can encompass a wide range of writings,” she added. A new law was drafted in 2019 that eases some penalties of the current law, including prison sentences, fines, and firing journalists. “Moreover, the law includes easing pre- and post-publication censorship, but also incorporates regulations that address online and electronic media and restrictions remain in place, justified on the grounds of security, social cohesion, and morality,” said Waheedi.
Many Bahrainis wait for the book fair to find books that would be censored in other places, due to the practical challenge of the government checking thousands of books coming to the fair. Nonetheless, some “flagged” publishers, who often have political publications, do get their books banned, Waheedi added.
Qatar operates under a 1979 press and publications law and terrorism legislation that are used to regulate a range of activities. The Ministry of Culture monitors publications and can ban any publication deemed contrary to the “national interest” and which doesn’t “preserve the values and principles of society.” Moreover, a law was issued recently that “criminalizes a broad range of speech and publishing activities,” and authorizes imprisonment for violators.
In June, Qatar’s Shura Council drafted a new law that regulates press and publications and removed prison sentences for violations. However, the draft law still states that publications should adhere to the state’s constitution. Details of this law are yet to be disclosed.
Future of Censorship
Because of the various restrictions in Gulf Arab constitutions and basic laws through a wide range of political and moral provisions, writers tend to self-censor their publications. They often work compliantly according to those restrictions and think about the “intended and unintended consequences of their production.” This strict regulation correlates with the ideas the states are presenting and what they deem as acceptable. Implications of such regulations on the younger generations remain to be seen, as what they read is highly regulated and filtered.
Nevertheless, high consumption of information on the internet and social media platforms in the region makes regulation more challenging. Gulf states are adapting regulations and revising policies in this new age of information, but the effectiveness of these policies is constantly being tested.
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