Kuwait City - Kuwait is forging ahead with a law that will regulate the country's telecommunications and information technology, including social media, despite claims by human rights activists that the bill will restrict freedom of expression.
"The law allows authorities to block websites, terminate mobile lines for security reasons without a legal order, and issue warrants to search houses without a prior legal order," Kuwaiti humans rights activist Nawaf al-Hendal told Al Jazeera.
Hendal alleged that the legislation violates Kuwait's obligations under international treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which it signed in 1996. "This article allows the punishment of all those deemed violators or abusers of public morals, which is an elastic expression that raises concerns. The law must outline the conditions and guidelines under which websites are to be blocked," he said.
On May 18, parliament passed the Unified Media Law by an overwhelming majority. Comprising 93 articles, the law establishes establishes a Commission for Mass Communications and Information Technology (CMCIT) to oversee all technical matters pertaining to mobile phone services and internet providers, a role now carried out by the ministry of communications.
While members of the CMCIT have yet to be chosen, it will also be tasked with monitoring social media content.
Speaking to reporters in May, Hameed al-Qattan, undersecretary of the ministry of communications, said that the authority's purpose was "regulatory" and would include tasks like granting licenses and monitoring prices, "not [suppressing] freedoms". He added that blocking websites or eavesdropping on phone calls would not happen without a legal order or the word of the public prosecutor.
This article allows the punishment of all those deemed violators or abusers of public morals, which is an elastic expression that raises concerns.
But Human Rights Watch found that among other problematic provisions, Article 70 of the law allows Kuwait to imprison people using "any means of communication to threaten, insult... or harm the reputation of others" for up to two years, and fine people over $17,700.
Article 53 also gives Kuwaiti authorities the right to suspend service for "national security" reasons.
"This new law comes at a time when Kuwait is prosecuting many activists, politicians, journalists, and other government critics on expansive interpretations of morality and national security," said Eric Goldstein, HRW's deputy Middle East and North Africa director.
"It appears designed to give prosecuting authorities even wider legal authorization for violating Kuwaitis' right to free speech."
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Kuwait is unique among the kingdoms of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council for being the only semi-constitutional monarchy. It has an elected parliament that enjoys legislative powers and the authority to question cabinet members and file no-confidence votes.
Social media platforms, which are a favoured tool of the country's opposition groups, are widely prevalent in the state, making Kuwait one of the most connected countries in the Middle East.
Kuwait's Twitter community ranks fourth in the region, with a penetration rate of 11 percent, equalling 334,000 active users, according to the 2014 Arab Social Media Report produced by the Dubai School of Government. In March 2014, Kuwaiti users generated 10 percent of all Twitter posts from the Arab world. With nearly 56 million tweets posted, the country came third for Twitter usage, behind only Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two much larger countries.
"The high economic status of Kuwaitis makes internet subscription, digital devices, and smart phones very affordable," Fatima al-Salem, assistant professor at Kuwait University's journalism and media technologies department, told Al Jazeera.
Al-Salem attributed the active and largely politically driven usage of Twitter to the country's open media atmosphere.
"Twitter became an essential source of alternative news and a generator of public opinion in Kuwait, especially since most political groups and government officials use Twitter to disseminate their messages and gain public support," al-Salem said. She added that, according to a study she conducted in 2010, 75 percent of the then-parliament was using Twitter.
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Instagram is another social platform with a wide user base in Kuwait. Due to its visual nature, it is used as to promote and draw traffic to new businesses. Allowing its users to upload pictures and videos for free, young entrepreneurs use it as a virtual storefront, an advertising service, or a showroom to display merchandise and prices.
One of the more well-known Instagram accounts in Kuwait was used for none of these purposes, however. Under the user handle @Mn7asha, the account broadcast pictures of domestic workers who had fled the houses of their employers, accusing them of mistreatment. The account provoked a slew of criticism on social media, with many labelling it discriminatory, until the account went offline. It is not known whether it was taken down by Instagram or by the users themselves.
|Kuwait has cracked down on social media posts amid recent opposition protests against the country's monarch [Reuters]
While Kuwait has avoided many of the shockwaves of the Arab Spring, the country has been caught in back-to-back deadlocks between the state's monarch, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, and an opposition that has united to curtail his powers.
Over the past few years, dozens of Twitter users have been referred to courts for Twitter posts that were were deemed illegal, such as insulting the country's ruler or religious icons. The number of people who have faced charges related to social media posts sits at around 30, of which more than 20 have been convicted, humans rights activist Hendal told Al Jazeera.
The most recent indictment was issued on July 21, when Kuwait's highest court endorsed a 10-year jail sentence for a Twitter user - belonging to the country's 30 percent Shia Muslim minority - who was found guilty of insulting the Prophet Muhammad, his wife, and his companions in a Twitter post.
Twenty-four year old Hamad al-Naqi was also convicted of insulting Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, as well as spreading false information that was deemed to have tarnished Kuwait's image abroad. The court's verdict can only be overturned by Kuwait's ruler. Human Rights Watch said authorities should "quash the verdict and release al-Naqi immediately" adding that the decision is "another example of a violation of the right of free speech in Kuwait".
"The number of such cases will surely rise as the new law allows all contents to be monitored and rules out all previously issued laws," Hendal said.
Follow Dahlia Kholaif on Twitter.