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February 03, 2016

Kuwait Cybercrime Law Curbs Freedom of Expression

By Leah Schulz

Kuwait’s Cybercrime Law No. 63, approved by its National Assembly in June, imposes severe restrictions on freedom of speech that deteriorate an already dangerous environment for online activists. It went into effect last month.

The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), Article 19, Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released a joint statement condemning the law. Articles four, six, and seven are particularly concerning as they “could be used to limit freedom of expression on the Internet, as well as to target online activists including bloggers and citizen journalists.”

These sections utilize broad restrictions to police online activity. Article four criminalizes online activities that would “prejudice public morality,” without clearly defining what that is. Internet users who violate this vague offense could spend up to two years in prison and be fined two to five thousand Kuwaiti Dinar (KD) (USD $6,595-$16,488). 

Articles six and seven expand the scope of Kuwait’s Printing and Publishing Law of 2006 by applying it to Internet-based media publications and journalistic outlets. Article six imposes penalties of up to a year in prison and a 20,000 KD fine (USD $66,208) for offenses such as publishing of material that:

  • Criticizes the Head of State
  • Shows contempt or disdain for the State Constitution.
  • Insults or demonstrates contempt for the judiciary or prejudices their integrity and impartiality.
  • Prejudices public morals, incites to breach public order or violate law even if a crime does not occur.

Article six also prohibits “causing harm to the relationships between Kuwait and other Arab or friendly countries if that is done through press campaigns.” In 2015, Kuwaiti authorities used a similar provision in the 1970 National Security Law to prosecute at least six people for Twitter posts deemed critical of Saudi Arabian policies. Article six provides offers another legal means to prosecute free speech.

The law’s severest punishment comes from article seven, which allows for up to 10 years in prison for offenses including “the publication of incitement to overthrow the regime in the country.” In theory this is a counterterrorism measure, but it could be used against human rights defenders calling for political reform. The law also empowers authorities to close websites in violation, shut down the physical spaces in which violations were committed, and confiscate publishers’ electronic devices for one year.

This new cybercrime law exacerbates the ongoing repression of human rights activists in Kuwait. In recent years Kuwaiti authorities have used provisions in the constitution, penal code, Printing and Publication Law, Misuse of Telephone Communications and Bugging Devices Law, Public Gatherings Law, and National Unity Law to prosecute more than a dozen people for expressing critical opinions on social media. The cybercrime law is the government’s latest tool in the crackdown.