If Kuwaiti authorities thought they could hush news coverage of a reported plot to overthrow the emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jabir al-Sabah, their efforts to control independent media appear to have backfired.
It all began when the tiny Gulf state’s chief prosecutor, Dherar Al-Asousi, on April 10 barred journalists from covering an investigation into a tape recording of an alleged coup plot, saying that officials would make public statements about the probe when they thought the time was right.
But two newspapers, Al Watan and Alam Alyawm, defied the ban, prompting a Kuwaiti court to order the dailies to halt publication for two weeks beginning April 21.
Far from burying news about the probe of the alleged coup, the ruling has drawn coverage in international media, including news agencies, newspapers and broadcast networks. “The suspension order turned what was otherwise a local story into international news,” one Kuwaiti journalist working for a state-run news provider told me in a Skype chat. A quick Google search showed 82 news articles from a spectrum of regional and international media related to the punishment of the newspapers on April 20, the day the court issued its order following a complaint filed by the government.
At home, the story isn’t going away either. Managers of the papers are complying with the suspension but Reuters quoted Al Watan chief editor Sheikh Khalifa Ali al-Khalifa al-Sabah – who is part of the ruling family – as saying that the paper would contest the ruling.
The suspension of newspapers is serious business, denying readers access to information, leaving editors and reporters vulnerable to intimidation, and also causing financial harm to independent news organisations that depend on advertising and sales. A Ugandan ban on two newspapers last May had devastating effects on their bottom line. Officials at the Daily Monitor in Kampala estimated that a police occupation of the newspaper that prevented publication for 10 days cost it the equivalent of US$60,000 per day. The paper’s managing director, Alex Asiimwe, added that the closure also affected the morale of the staff and thousands of others involved in distribution and sales. He told IPI they had “approximately 500 direct employees and their dependents who endured a period of extreme uncertainty and pain during the siege, not sure whether they would have a job in the next couple of months.”
What comes as something of a surprise in Kuwait is that efforts to interfere with news coverage go against the democratic reforms the authorities have carried out in recent years. The country has a relatively free and feisty media environment, especially when compared to its far more restrictive Gulf neighbours. Notwithstanding these relative freedoms, it remains a crime to criticise the emir and insult Allah, fuelling a sense of “fear of lawsuits, fines and imprisonment” amongst journalists, as the last IPI World Press Freedom Review report on Kuwait noted.
Despite the Kuwaiti authorities’ efforts to bury the news about the alleged coup recordings, the editors and journalists at the suspended newspapers aren’t standing down. Both Al Watan and Alam Alyawm continue to publish online and the papers are available as PDFs.