Worrying new law could threaten social media users' free expression

Expression

Freedom of expression continues to be seriously threatened in Kuwait. In recent weeks, the authorities have sentenced independent journalists, bloggers and social media users for defending free expression or for criticising other Gulf countries. Three such cases are detailed below: 

  • On 25th December 2017, the Kuwaiti authorities sentenced independent journalist Abdullah Al-Saleh to five years imprisonment and hard labour, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Al-Saleh, a YouTube reporter and former newspaper columnist, was found guilty and sentenced in absentia for "abusing Saudi Arabia”. He was also found guilty of insulting the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and, in a separate trial, of insulting Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE collectively. On 25th January 2018, he was sentenced to a further ten years imprisonment for the latter case.
  • Earlier in January 2018, a social media user was reportedly sentenced to seven years in prison with hard labour on charges that include defaming Saudi Arabia on Twitter.
  • On 8th January 2018, exiled writer Fouad Al-Hashem was sentenced to seven years in absentia for charges relating to insulting Qatar on social media.

In this context, there are also worrying reports that Kuwaiti authorities are planning to introduce a new law regulating social media that could further undermine the right to freedom of expression.

On 5th January 2018, CIVICUS Monitor partner - Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) - reported that the Kuwaiti authorities have begun drafting a new law governing publishing on social media, which will apply to all user accounts and social media websites as well as other communications applications not covered under the Electronic Media Law No. 8 of 2016. GCHR and others are concerned as the bill, parts of which have been made public, contains vague terms that could be used to target bloggers and internet activists, such as: "It is prohibited to use Twitter as a means of annoyance or aggression against others". At the time of reporting, the law had not yet been published in the official newspaper of state laws. 

Peaceful Assembly

According to the GCHR, on 28th January 2018 citing due process violations, the Court of Cassation's prosecutor objected to the Court of Appeal's November 2017 verdict which sentenced 67 people to prison for storming the National Assembly in 2011. Those convicted included human rights defender Sulaiman Bin Jassim, co-founder of the National Committee for Monitoring Violations, who was sentenced to seven years in prison, along with prominent opposition leader Mussalam Al-Barrak who was sentenced to nine years. The accused were previously acquitted in December 2013, when the court accepted evidence that people entered the National Assembly to avoid the violence on the streets. Prison sentences against some of the 67 were suspended, leaving 38 individuals who remain in prison.

In December 2017, internationally-recognised Kuwaiti human rights defender Abdulhakim Al-Fadhli was chosen to be the Defender of Human Rights and Freedom of Speech for the month of December by the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, Maharat Foundation and GCHR, in cooperation with IFEX.

Abdulhakim Al-Fadhli has been repeatedly arrested and detained for his participation in peaceful protests in defence of the rights of the Bedoon community. Most recently, he was released from prison on 1st August 2017 on bail of 500 Kuwait Dinars (1,650 USD) after serving a one-year sentence for peacefully protesting. Prior to his release, he was forced to sign a declaration that he would not participate in any further protests, and in exchange, the authorities lifted his deportation order and revoked another prison sentence.