- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 18, 2004

The toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq has ushered in new voices and ideas via newspapers, satellite television, talk radio and the World Wide Web. However, despite the gains in press liberties made in Iraq, more than 90 percent of Middle Eastern and North African countries still earn a “not free” classification, according to a recent report by Freedom House. The sole Arab exception, Kuwait, remains classified as “partly free,” due in part to a 1961 Publications and Publishing Law.

Some Kuwaitis say the law is stricter on the books than in the government’s application. “I have the ability to express my views without limitation,” Mohammed A. Al-Jassem, editor in chief of the Arabic Newsweek and the daily newspaper Al-Watan, tells us, later noting, however, that he cannot criticize the emir. The law also prevents the establishment of new newspapers, calls for imprisonment for crimes of opinion and permits administrative closures. Taboo publishing topics include any material that would offend heads of state or soil relations with allies, harm the value of the Kuwaiti Dinar or offend “moral sensibilities.” The ambiguous wording leaves the gateway wide open to include very broad categories of speech.

Many have called for reforms over the years, but an oft-amended draft has been stalled in a parliament committee since 1992. Prominent journalists drafted another bill that could possibly go before parliament during the next legislative session. Most importantly, the new legislation would allow for the licensing of new newspapers, which would give rise to greater freedom of the press and diversity of thought. Also, the proposed legislation would prohibit the monitoring and censorship of newspapers, forbid the revocation of newspaper licenses and replace prison time with fines, except in the case of criticizing Islam, the emir or threatening state security. “[This is] the chance to be responsible about freedom,” Mr. Al-Jassem says.

While the legislation has its flaws, such as restricting criticism of the emir, it nonetheless promotes press freedom — an important instrument of democracy.

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