Freedom of Speech via Social Media in U. S. and Kuwait

Introduction

The new media has become a power in the information society. Sites like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are used not only for interpersonal communications, but also for community creation, formation of public opinions, sharing, and finding information. These influential sources of information have played important roles in major political events, such as the so-called "Arab Spring" and revolutionary events in Ukraine in 2013-2014. Most progressive politics, journalists, and social activists are personally represented on these websites, using them to communicate, share, and acquire information. With the help of social media, sharing information becomes independent, instant, and easily available. Using such sites as Twitter, one can gain the news and opinions firsthand from the center of events and from those who are personally involved, including different points of view. There are also a number of problems regarding these new forms of media. As personal information presented on these websites becomes public, and some statements made on these websites can violate the law or the rights of other people, there must be laws that regulate social media. Thus, the question where the freedom provided by the social media should be limited, is a subject of debate in both countries with high level of freedom of speech, like the USA, and in countries of the Middle East, where these freedoms are constantly limited by the government. 

Kuwait in the Context of Middle East States

Experts differentiate Kuwait from other countries of the Middle East region according to a number of factors. Firstly, the countries constitutional system is parliamentary, and citizens of the country can take part in the formation of the government. Secondly, the country has a comparatively high level of political freedom, which includes the freedom of speech (“Kuwait Whistleblowing”, 2014). According to Freedom House international organization, the level of freedom of speech is currently defined as "partly free" (“Kuwait Freedom of the Press 2012”, 2012). Among other countries of the Middle East, where the status of overall democracy and freedom of speech in particular has recently been endangered, Kuwait maintains a fragile status quo. Researcher Daniel Blumberg (2002) defines this regime as "liberalized autocracy". Blumberg (2002) explains that for such regimes allowing certain level of controlled liberties is a "survival strategy". Declaratively, freedom of speech, free press, and possibilities for citizens to take part in social activities, including elections do exist in Kuwait. 

Freedom of Speech in Kuwait

While the constitution of Kuwait defends the freedom of speech, in practice, there are numerous factors limiting it and people who criticize the government in the media cannot feel absolutely safe. According to Articles 36 and 37 of the constitution of Kuwait the freedom of speech and press are guaranteed; however, they contain a line that creates a loophole: “in accordance with the conditions and in the circumstances defined by law” (“Kuwait Freedom of the Press 2014”, 2014). Thus, the legislative document that currently regulates the information and communication sphere is the "Press and Publications Law". According to this law, publications that insult God, Islamic faith, contain criticism of Emir and the government and calls to overthrow the government are prohibited. With such broad definitions, almost every statement of controversial nature can be interpreted as criminal, and freedom of speech is in fact limited and controlled by the regime. The above-mentioned law also forbids disclosure of secret and private information, thus, serving to regulate privacy (“Kuwait Freedom”, 2014)

Internet and freedom of Speech in Kuwait

According to Kuwait Online Marketing Country Profile report (2014), Kuwait is a country with a very internet-active population. Most of the popular sites in the country are international. As there is a certain level of the Internet censorship in Kuwait, internet users in the country use proxy-servers to avoid these limitations. Social media cites have become a significant source of information and communication in Kuwait society, with Facebook being the most popular social network. As the report states, Twitter gradually displaces Facebook from the position of leading social media. Social media, including Twitter, are actively used not only by regular citizens, but also by social activists and political opposition to current government. 

Attempts to Impose Regulation on Social Media

The events of the Arab Spring forced the Kuwait government to implement more strict legislative regulation of internet and social media. In 2013, there was an attempt to introduce a restrictive "Combined Media Law". The content of the law was kept in secret. After its early draft leaked and became public, the law was described as draconian and "intentionally ambiguous", providing the government with a numerous reasons for shutting down the disagreeable websites and pages (“Kuwait Seeks Tough Penalties”, 2013). The law also introduced "a 10-year jail term for religious offences and a fine of more than $1 million for criticizing the emir" (“Kuwait Seeks Tough Penalties”, 2013). In addition, the law extended government control of the Internet media sources, including social media. After a public backlash, the law was put on hold by the prime minister. Thus, the information field in Kuwait is still regulated by the 2006 and 2007 laws (“Kuwait Freedom of the Press 2012”, 2012). In 2013, there have been projects of laws aimed to regulate access to public information; however, there was no progress in implementation of this law as for today (“Kuwait Whistleblowing”, 2014). 

Twitter Activist Prosecutions in Kuwait

While Kuwait is comparatively freer than other countries of the region, vague nature of its laws, especially in the field of freedom of speech, is troubling, which is even more evident by recent arrests of bloggers and activists for their activities on Twitter. The attempts to limit the freedom of speech by new laws are seemingly put on hold, replaced by the policy of intimidation against activists who use social media uncontrolled by the government. Several different laws were used to incarcerate activists. Human Rights Watch reports:

  • In 2014, the authorities used the constitution and a raft of restrictive laws – including the penal code; laws on printing and publishing, public gatherings, and misuse of telephone communications; and the National Unity Law of 2013 – to prosecute at least 13 people for criticizing the government or institutions in blogs or on Twitter, Facebook, or other social media. (“Kuwait: Ex-Lawmaker”, 2015)

For example, the former politician and activist Saleh al-Mulla was arrested for his tweets, in which he criticized economic policy of the government. His incarceration caused active reaction of human rights organizations, which declared this act as a flagrant violation of freedom of speech (“Kuwait: Ex-Lawmaker”, 2015). Another activist Saqr Al-Hashash was sentenced for year and eight months in prison, for tweets, supposedly insulting the Emir (Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, 2015). These are just single examples of such cases. 

Local press in Kuwait is regulated by the tradition of self-restraint. There are topics and opinions that are not addressed in Kuwaiti media, however outside social media that have their own policies on freedom of expression provide possibilities for activist and opposition in Kuwait to express their views.  As the government of Kuwait has no instruments to influence policies of these websites, they use other restrictive laws against people directly responsible for these "unacceptable" posts. The amount of activists prosecuted for tweets and blog-posts and severe prisons sentences and fines they are sentenced to proves that freedom of speech in Kuwait is in danger. 

Freedom of Speech in the US

The United States of America is the country with one of the highest indexes of freedom of speech in the world. In the USA, the freedom of speech is guaranteed and protected by the Constitution. The First Amendment to the Constitution of the USA protects all manifestations of the free speech, even those that can be considered offensive, as possibility to freely express political and other views without fear of prosecution contributes to development of state. As prohibition of expression of certain ideas cannot prevent these ideas from existing, the best way of dealing with such rhetoric, according to the creators of the constitution, is creating a free competition of ideas, to fuel the democracy and not to limit it (“Freedom of Expression”, 2013).  However, there are certain limitations to where and on what circumstances some speech can become public. These restrictions can be content neutral (limitation on where and in what way some information can be performed) and content based. As stated in the report Freedom of Expression in the United States (2013) "special categories of expression that may be restricted under the First Amendment include incitement to imminent violence, true threats, defamatory speech, and obscenity". Thus, the freedom of speech can be limited, if it causes direct danger of violence. Another limitation lies in the field of private affairs. Any private company can put forward their own rules on certain speech they can see as harmful, and to decide which information can and cannot be shared (“Freedom of Expression”, 2013). 

There were, however, attempts to create laws regulating and limiting freedom of speech on the Internet. Such a law was introduced in the state of Illinois in 2013, called "Internet Posting Removal Act" that provided site administrators with a possibility to remove anonymous posts and comments on request. While this law still has not been adopted, it can be seen as a troubling signal, as such laws recently were introduced in Russia that has a bad track record in the field of freedom of speech and free press (Posel, 2013). 

In regards to the privacy, the Privacy Act of 1974 protects the privacy of citizens from invasion by the state institutes (“The Privacy Act”, 2015). However, with the use of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the NSA collected personal data from the social networks. When this fact became public, it caused a public outrage (“NSA Surveillance Program”, 2015).

Twitter and Social Network Cases in the US

Unlike the above-mentioned cases of legal prosecution for antigovernment tweets in Kuwait, there were no such precedents in the USA. Some similar episodes should be addressed. In 2012, a US Marine Gary Stein was discharged from the Corps for creating a radical Facebook page that criticized president Obama and his policies (Perry, 2012). In another example, a football player Khalif Mitchell was fined and forced to make a public apology for his Tweets in which he criticized both candidates during a president election (“Twitter And Censorship”, 2012). In both cases, the prosecution was carried by the institutions according to their inner policies. In rare cases, people can face criminal charges for "cyber stalking" when their activities show elements of crime, such as the case of William Lawrence Cassidy, who was accused of stalking and threatening a religious leader in Maryland (Sengupta, 2011). The case of Cassidy fueled a legal and public debate, on whether communication over social media like Twitter could be equated to real-life communication, especially when it caused real harm. Overall, Twitter is actively used in the USA for criticism of the government and active social debate and rare cases of legal prosecution over posts in social media do not contradict the word of the constitution.

In the article “Twitter Finds Out That Free Speech Doesn't Mean The Same Thing Everywhere”, researcher Tim Worstall (2013) analyzes the challenges that company like Twitter, originally oriented on American market, can face in other countries of the world. Worstall (2013) mentions that as Twitter is based on American policies regarding freedom of speech, in other counties, where users also use this service, there can be different approaches to censorship:

  • A robustly American position of free speech is just great, I thoroughly approve of it. But there are plenty of places around the world where the law just isn’t like that: and Twitter, just like everything else online, is not bound just by the laws of where Twitter is, but by the laws that apply in each and every place that Twitter is read.

According to this position, websites like Twitter and Facebook, while situated in the USA, should take into account the fact that different countries could use their own policies to prosecute not the website itself, but its users who are not defended by the US laws. Prosecutions of activists in Kuwait illustrate that while the export of democracy with the means of social media is evidently effective, it also faces the opposition in the regions where freedom of speech can endanger deeply rooted political traditions. 

There is another questionable aspect of total and unlimited freedom of speech brought by the new media, which is now evident especially in the USA. With unlimited freedom comes the danger of impunity. Sometimes the borderline with free expression and straightforward arbitrariness is vague. Thus, cases of cyber-stalking remain rare and the question of responsibility for online rhetoric is open for consideration.

Conclusion

There is an obvious difference between the states of free speech in the USA and Kuwait. American society is often forced to deal with difficult arguments the total freedom of speech brings with it. However, the possibility of all sides regardless their position in power, to express their views does benefit the progress of the society. Kuwait is not a totalitarian state closed from the outside information with limited freedoms, like other countries of the Middle East. The country has a relatively high level of freedom of speech and access to information, limited mostly by traditional self-censorship of inner media. There are, however, some attempts of the government to put regulatory laws on the Internet. The pressure from the international community, human rights organizations, and inner opposition prevented these laws from adoption thus far. However, the above-mentioned cases of prosecution of political activists for their Twitter activities prove that such laws are not always needed to enforce the policy of intimidation of the opposition. Already existing laws are used in these cases, and activists are put in jail and sometimes indulgently pardoned by the government. It is obvious, that instruments of freedom of speech imported from the USA, like the social media, will be met with opposition in traditionally autocratic society, like the one in Kuwait. While the situation does not seem to undergo any substantial changes in foreseeable future, there are certain tools available for human rights activist, journalists and politicians inside and outside Kuwait to influence it. Active public campaigns in defense of prosecuted activist proved to be very effective. Perhaps, the administration of Twitter website itself should show a more active position to protect people who use this website as an instrument of promoting social freedoms and opposing views. 

 

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