Kuwait’s Information Minister, Minister Sheikh Mohammad al-Mubarak Al-Sabah, announced last week that Kuwait plans to pass new laws regulating the use of social networking sites such as Twitter in order to “safeguard the cohesiveness of the population and society.” The Information Minister’s announcement reflects growing panic over comments in social media deemed to incite the mounting sectarian tension between Sunnis and Shi’ites throughout the region.
Even without additional regulatory powers, the Kuwaiti government has cracked down on social media in the last year, especially Twitter. Writer Mohammad al-Mulaifi has been held for more than a month over accusations of "insulting the Muslim Shi'ite minority" on Twitter, a charge which for another activist, Mubarak Al-Bathali, resulted in a prison sentence of three years—later commuted to six months. In the summer of 2011, Nasser Abul spent three months in prison for criticizing the Bahraini and Saudi royal families on Twitter. In December of 2011, the Interior Ministry—perhaps unclear on the difference between suspension of accounts and blocking—announced that it had asked the Ministry of Communications to “suspend all anonymous accounts” on Twitter. There is no indication that the Ministry of Communications has complied with this request, possibly because Twitter’s verified accounts are limited to celebrities and brands—sorting out all of the anonymous accounts on Twitter would be a non-trivial task for the Ministry to take on.
Until now, the Internet in Kuwait has been relatively free compared to other countries in the Gulf region. The OpenNet Initiative describes the Kuwaiti media as “the most outspoken in the Arab world,” though they go on to point out that journalists are expected to exercise self-censorship when covering matters related to the Emir and the royal family. The Ministry of Communication regulates ISPs in Kuwait, forcing them to block pornography, anti-religion, anti-tradition, and anti-security websites. The Ministry also censors sites considered to "incite terrorism and instability," blocking websites that are critical of the government or seen to support terrorism.
What form these new regulations on free speech will take is as yet unclear, but the Ministry of Information's announcement strongly suggests that we may see additional regulation of speech that is seen as contributing to sectarian tensions as well as broader attacks on anonymous speech. EFF will continue to keep a careful eye on these worrisome developments in the Gulf region.