It is an open secret that in the Gulf states, journalism does not fulfill its role as the fourth estate of democracy, as is reflected in the levels of democratic freedoms across the region. The media industry functions within the restrictive confines of each state and constantly fails to adhere to its supposed purpose of objectivity and transparency. However, a dysfunctional media industry does far more damage than simply blockade a pathway to democratization — it makes fact indiscernible from fiction.
Whether driven by internal censorship, regional politics, or violent conflict, policing the media suffocates the flow of information to the public. Good journalism is, as American playwright Arthur Miller said, “a nation having a conversation with itself.” In the Gulf’s case, bad journalism is a nation silenced. The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Yemen all have legislation damming the waters of journalism and limiting the media’s role in promoting a healthy society. Most of these laws pose obscure definitions of “fake news” and list the provocation of public opinion as a punishable offense, thus serving to muffle the state’s internal dialogue.
Each state leverages its power over the media with consideration of its unique relationship to its media industry. Qatar’s new media law, enacted January 19, can punish “fake news” if a court deems that it has the “intention of harming national interests, provoking public opinion, or prejudicing the social order or public order of the state.” In Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, barriers to journalistic work take the form of case-by-case arbitration, whereas Yemen reinforces state power by creating a social norm of policing journalism.
In the UAE, the most common tactic employed to control the media landscape is the arbitrary banning of several forms of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) such as WhatsApp calls. When the UAE substituted VoIP’s with its own ToTok, reports indicated signs of surveillance and data-farming by the state. Although these more recent examples contribute to hindering a free press, arbitrarily policing media under the guise of legal justification is not new and goes back to the country’s 1980 Law No. 15. This law, as a federally-backed initiative to regulate media, grants the state the power to determine what constitutes false information, creating a barrier to free speech further enforced by the federal body of the National Media Council (NMC).
The NMC was established in 2006 but gained further power with 2016’s Law No. 11 as it grew into a federal agency overseeing all of the UAE’s media affairs, including the country’s free zones. Like the UAE, Oman holds a stern grasp on press behaviors. Royal Decree No. 49’s Article 12 from 1984 dictates that all publications must be approved by Oman’s Ministry of Information. Further press laws were added later, like Royal Decree No. 101’s Article 31 in 1996, which increased prohibitions faced by the press; the law clarified that publications cannot include “anything that leads to discord, affects the security of State, or prejudices human dignity or rights.”
With Kuwait, a free press possesses a more malleable reality, making it a possible golden standard for the Gulf if it progresses forward with a democratized set of changes. Kuwait ranked 109 out of 180 countries on the 2020 Press Freedom Index, making it the highest ranked of the Gulf countries, indicating the most press freedom. This ranking, while also an indicator of a bitter reality, illustrates that Kuwait’s media landscape is — with proper structural and social reform — workable enough to evolve and expand freedoms in the future, despite being similar to its Gulf counterparts.
Legislation and its Critics
While Kuwaiti journalism has the best space of freedom, in 2016 Kuwait enacted Law 8, commonly known as Kuwait’s e-law, which comprises a series of amendments to prior laws spanning from 1960 to 2015 and is legislated through the Ministry of Information (MOI). These amendments were intended to accommodate the growing digital world by mandating licenses for any electronic entity distributing news and strengthening the MOI’s electronic crimes division.
A year before, following several episodes of social unrest and clashes between the state and critics, Amnesty International warned that the law would cause Kuwait to “slide into repression.” Less than a year after the law’s introduction, Human Rights Watch called it a “blow to free speech.” Since then, MOI’s electronic crimes division has allowed for the permeation of new oppressive social norms into the media landscape. While there exists opposition to this downturn of media freedoms like that of the Kuwaiti Liberal Movement (KLM), an organization calling for free speech reforms, the lack of free speech is continually normalized and faces little effective pushback.
Specifically, amendments 17 through 25 of Kuwait’s e-law are the primary force behind today’s status quo. These amendments are contradictory, which obfuscates the law’s intention and expands the legal power to prosecute while also increasing doubts of the law’s legitimacy. One of these contradictions lies in amendments 17 and 21, where the former warns against the distribution of “fake news” and encourages broadcasting fact-checked news while the latter allows the state to investigate said truths at will. It is clear that the law is more interested in punishing dissent than protecting truth, seeing as it is both demanding of truth and disinterested in it.
The e-law, which critics say is born out of the need to eliminate public scrutiny of governing powers, does not exist in isolation. Articles 36 and 37 of Kuwait’s constitution protect freedom of speech and the press, but the e-law overrides these two articles and crushes the civil liberties that they provide. It also creates a peculiar structure of media licensing and an absurd predicament for citizen journalists. The e-law demanded that everything from blogs to viral Instagram accounts obtain a media license, which essentially turns every citizen journalist into state media. The license allows a social media “news” account official protection, but in return these accounts must broadcast information approved by the state’s licenses proxy. Some critics call this a form of legal extortion.
Media, Monopoly, and Misinformation
Out of this situation comes two significant consequences. First, the relationship between the state and licensed media is solidified as a large portion of news posted goes factually unchecked, disregarding amendment 17. Second, both this legal extortion and the social policing of licensed outlets play against the consumer, as many of these licensed outlets are sponsored by legal firms that intimidate the public into silence, conditioning them to consider state media as proper journalism.
If civil liberties such as freedom of speech and the free press fall, then surely civic duty will decline as well. Irresponsible media consumption habits in Kuwait such as the circulation of uncited studies on Instagram or the use of WhatsApp as a means of staying informed has long been established as the norm. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, misinformation in Kuwaiti media is rampant, despite some refreshing anomalies. However, the crux of the matter is not in the circulation of the content but rather the content itself, which, more often than not, is the most insidious kind of misinformation: conspiracy theories.
Examples of hegemonic misinformation can even be found on WhatsApp, where widely circulated conspiracy theories meet a large audience. Recently, Kuwaiti channels spread conspiracy theories that a group or a nation is plotting to take over the world using the coronavirus. These conspiracies are transmitted en masse in these circles, as they are in the United States far-right and white supremacist media. This pervasiveness points to the dangerously low level of Kuwaiti media literacy and further emphasizes the argument that a weakened state of journalism robbed of professionalism and autonomy allows for unchecked external influences.
Appease the Public & Appeal the E-Law
Despite state failures to protect civil liberties and promote freedom of speech, the recent increase of reporting on the illegal work visa scandal from national outlets like Al-Qabas is an unusual journalistic feat to be celebrated. However, critical reporting is an anomaly and not a norm. This coverage is indicative of a media industry focused on truthful storytelling and aimed at generating national conversation, which may serve as a stepping stone toward a new reality unbound by restrictive laws and norms. To advance such stepping stones into a proper path forward, the government should co-sponsor a public campaign to counteract policies like 2016’s e-law and restore the power diminished in Articles 36 and 37. Just as the e-law and its amendments mixed state and local forces together, a restoration of balance and truth should adopt the same mechanism.
On the legislative side, the state ought to either abolish or loosen the requirements for a media license and stipulate that journalists conduct their media services with the highest of standards in order to acquire one. This could be done by prioritizing licenses to media or journalism degree holders, instating a media literacy test as a part of the license application, and creating a new MOI task force focused on media standards. This task force must not have any prosecutorial powers and must aim to uphold the truth rather than police professionalism. Additionally, it is essential that the state re-establish trust between the government and the governed by diluting the electronic crimes division’s powers to pursue, police, and prosecute free speech. Having a state or ministerial entity co-sign such proposals would validate this trust and encourage the people to mobilize around the second part of this proposition.
Alongside the legislative actions, there should be a public campaign sanctioned by the government and led by the people that complement this reform’s goals and fortifies the trust between the people and the state. The campaign would take the form of a national, interactive mobile application that enhances media literacy in the general population. For example, a user could interact with the various formats of journalistic storytelling, learn the process of fact-checking, and engage with quizzes. This initiative would be under a digital cloud where Kuwaitis can track each other’s progress.
In a moment when the pandemic has intensified Kuwaiti society’s relationship with the digital sphere, the time is ripe to capitalize on introducing large-scale reform. With the proper actions, Kuwait can morph the pandemic into a catalyst that closes the gap of trust between the state and the people. However, if Kuwait’s journalism and media continues to decay, then the nation may not be in conversation with itself for a long time to come. In that case, Kuwaiti society may never know a reality other than silence.