The pride of the Gulf: Kuwaitis and their determination to realize their civil rights

Kuwait has seen unprecedented levels of demonstrations over the past month

Kuwait isn’t a place one would naturally associate with freedom and democracy. The country and its nationals are often derided by other Gulf Arabs for a number of reasons (if you live in the Gulf you’ll understand what I’m talking about here).

When it comes to participation in government, there’s no doubt in my mind that the rest of the Gulf could learn a great deal from Kuwait. The country has always had, by GCC standards, a vibrant and active political scene. Kuwait’s Constitution guarantees democratic representation by virtue of Article 6, Part 1 which states that “the System of Government in Kuwait shall be democratic, under which sovereignty resides in the people, the source of all powers.”

When talking about civil protests in the Gulf area a common refrain has been to ask “why are there any protests at all?” The perception is that Gulf Arabs have money, and that they are looked after and provided with all that they may need by their respective governments. This may be true in some cases, but it misses the point entirely. Kuwaitis are demanding more say in their government and how the country is ruled.

The challenges in Kuwait are best summed up by Kuwaiti opposition leader Musallam Al-Barrak in his article for the Guardian newspaper. You can read the article here, but I will also quote from it below.

We are protesting against an unconstitutional change in the electoral law pushed forward by the emir. The electoral system divides Kuwait into five districts; 10 parliamentarians are elected from each district. Previously people could cast four votes per ballot, but the new law permits voters to cast only one. This change aims to quell the national assembly’s role, as it facilitates the governing authority’s control of electoral outcomes – which in turn undermines the country’s democratic legitimacy.

On a deeper level, however, the demonstrations are against individual rule, something Kuwaitis have long and actively refused. In 1962, when the current constitution – which limits the governing authority’s role – was issued, it established that the public has the right to impose its opinions on the emir through the elected national assembly – a right that the governing authority refuses to acknowledge. The current struggle is therefore a struggle for power. Is power – as stated in the constitution – for the public, or is it – contrary to the constitution – for the emir?

The majority of people also believe that the government, representing the ruling family, is not serious in its battle against corruption. In fact, people are convinced they are sponsoring it. This belief was one of the reasons behind the dissolution of the 2012 parliament and the recent changes in the electoral system, following the opposition’s exposure of evidence that state money was being transferred to private accounts in London, Geneva and New York, and of the previous government bribing parliamentarians in 2009.

I for one am proud of the Kuwaiti people for standing up for what they believe to be their rights and against the actions of Kuwait’s ruler. They’ve shown bravery, determination, and a belief in themselves despite the very real risks to themselves. Kuwait’s people, both men and women, clearly believe in themselves and their ability to take the country forward. Kuwaitis have proved that they are prepared to risk a great deal for the right to govern themselves and fight corruption.

In his article for the Guardian Al-Barrak writes that in the end the people of Kuwait will be triumphant. I would hope that any victory for democratic participation in Kuwait would be felt by others across the Gulf. Will we one day look back to Kuwait in 2012 and say this is where the Gulf’s Arab Spring began? Today Kuwait and its people should be seen as the pride of the Gulf.

While the country does seem to be going through an unprecedented crisis, I do also feel that the Emir of Kuwait should be recognized to an extent for allowing protests (or at the very least, not cracking down in the same/similar manner to his GCC neighbours). Maybe I’m wrong on this, but Kuwait would seem to be the one country in the Gulf which allows for its nationals to protest openly. While I have read about and been told of attempts to use force and arrests to dispel protestors I certainly couldn’t imagine these scenes being repeated in any other city in the Gulf as of today.

For more on what is happening in Kuwait watch the below report from Al Jazeera’s English channel which makes for fascinating viewing.

The dangers of speaking your mind online – lessons from the Middle East

Kuwaiti graphic designer Mohammed Sharaf @MohammadRSharaf created the following image to support Nasser Abdul during his trial for tweeting offensive material

The internet is full of misconceptions. I often feel that most people think that the world wide web is a place where they can go to say anything, both positive and (most often) negative. The past 18 months and pending legislation should make anyone and everyone think twice about the above. Cases in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait have cast aside the notion that cyberspace is a domain where anything and everything goes.

A number of trials and guilty verdicts both underline the importance of tempering what people say online as well as underscore what authorities do and do not deem as illegal. The first high-profile legal proceedings took place in Kuwait when in June of last year a Kuwaiti national was charged with slandering Bahrain’s royal family and a religious group.

Despite claiming that his Twitter account was hacked Nasser Abdul was found guilty and sentenced to three months in jail which he had already served by the time his sentence was pronounced. There have been other cases in Kuwait, including the prosecution and sentencing of Mubarak Al-Bathali to six years in jail (this was commuted to six months) for Tweets attacking certain religious groups.

The most famous case of jailing for tweeting is that of Hamza Kashgari, who published three tweets about an imaginary meeting between himself and the Prophet Mohammed. His comments drew an instant reaction from Saudis online; in the hours that followed over 30,000 tweets regarding Kashgari were published online. Kashgari was accused of apostasy and fled to Malaysia. He was deported back to Saudi Arabia and jailed. Kashgari is still in detention, despite pleas by his family for his release and his apology for his actions (the basic story and roundup can be read here on Wikipedia).

Bahrain’s authorities have also taken to court individuals for publishing their thoughts in online public forums. The most famous and most recent case is that of activist Nabeel Rajab who tweeted about the Prime Minister’s visit to Muharraq in June and was accused of publicly insulting Muharraq’s residents for their support of Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa. According to Bahrain’s prosecutor Rajab had claimed that Muharraq’s residents had only welcomed the Prime Minister during a visit because he had offered them subsidies.

Bahrain’s Information Affairs Authority said his acquittal on defamation charges “was due to the judge’s uncertainty regarding the evidence submitted to support the lawsuit”. Rajab, who has spent two months in jail while awaiting the outcome of this and another case, had been faced with possible charges before for his use of Twitter, in 2011, in what would have been the first such case in the Middle East.

Clearly the Arab Spring, which has led to regime change in three Middle East countries and is still being felt across the region, has sharpened the thinking of numerous governments across the region. According to media reports in June of this year, Bahrain is introducing legislation to curb misuse of social media.

I am still trying to fully understand the full implications of Bahrain’s proposed social media law, but I am assuming that this would cover and make an illegal offense the publishing of any comments online or through social media that would appear to contradict government policy or government statements. Kuwait is also leaning in this direction, as this editorial by Reuters makes clear.

What is clear is that the Middle East’s online community is becoming increasingly politicized. I’d argue that many people, frustrated with the lack of political debate in traditional media, are going online to voice their issues and concerns. The Dubai School of Government has estimated that there are 1.3 million active users on Twitter in the region.

Switching tack slightly, how will the increase in political discourse affect online communication efforts/campaigns? Will communication professionals and agencies steer completely away from anything that could be construed as political or biased to one community? And will we see more people using online aliases? While many governments would like to regulate online activity, how are they going to force users to reveal their true identities when using services that are based in Europe or the US?

Would we even see sites such as Facebook or Twitter blocked by governments in the region (this did happen in Egypt during January 2011 when the authorities tried to stop any and all access to social networking sites)? That’s the logical conclusion, but how would you do this when these sites have become part of people’s everyday lives? As always, there seem to be many more questions than answers when it comes to the Middle East. The freedom to voice one’s thoughts online are no exception.

Are journalists putting too much trust in social media sources?

The internet and digital communication has had a profound effect on the media industry. Media can be distributed globally in a matter of moments, and the ease with which journalists can find sources has been greatly aided by tools such as Twitter. Need a quote? Then search a hashtag on Twitter or for a blog via Google and find a credible source.

There’s no denying that social and digital media are shaping how journalists work. Rather than quoting in the traditional sense, news articles reference tweets.

There are risks in referring to sources in this manner. Can you trust that they person is who they say they are? Do they really represent those who they claim to be talking on behalf of? Do they know the subject well enough to be viewed as a credible source?

I can imagine that the Arab Spring has been both exciting and infuriating for media. Many countries have not taken too kindly to media entering their borders and reporting on goings-on. There have been some groundbreaking stories coming out of Syria in particular, with journalists putting themselves in harms way to report on the ground.

And then there has been instances of deception. The worst was the case of the Gay Girl in Damascus, who went from being a global source on what was going on in Syria through her blog to…

… an American graduate student named Tom MacMaster who was studying in Scotland.

The hoax may be the worst case example of what can go wrong when using online media for references. What concerns me more is when journalists and media outlets source speakers online. Unless they’re careful, the people who end up becoming the witnesses or the quoted experts are those with the biggest following online.

Of course, this doesn’t just happen online. I was listening to a post on the BBC World a week ago and heard a report about the first Saudi female Olympians. The person being interviewed was a female Saudi journalist residing in New York.

As I sat listening to the report, I could not help but ask myself why was the BBC interviewing a person sitting thousands of miles away from the country under focus. Would this person hold a mainstream opinion? Even some of her facts which she used to corroborate her arguments were flimsy (for example, she said there are no female gyms in Saudi Arabia, which is false).

Being a good journalist is one of the hardest jobs out there, especially in the Middle East where people can often be reticent around media and yet the editor still wants the story filed ASAP. However, I would like to ask my friends in the media to think before they quote from online, and ask themselves if they’re background checking that person, if they need to quote the same person for the Xth time, and if they should quote from online sources when alternatives are available.

Youtube to enable blurring of faces on videos from today

Youtube has been one of the key tools of activists across the globe, and particularly in the Middle East. In response to requests from NGOs and activists on the ground who are naturally concerned about their safety when uploading videos to the site Youtube has today launched face blurring. This tool allows video uploaders and editors to obscure faces within videos with the click of a button.

To quote from the blog which can be read here:

“Whether you want to share sensitive protest footage without exposing the faces of the activists involved, or share the winning point in your 8-year-old’s basketball game without broadcasting the children’s faces to the world, our face blurring technology is a first step towards providing visual anonymity for video on YouTube.”

The screenshot below, which is taken from Youtube’s blog page and post on this new service, is an example of how the technology will work in practice. It’ll be interesting to see how often this is used by activists, and how authorities will respond. Kudos however to Youtube and Google for listening and providing a solution that should, I hope, save people from torture, intimidation, or worse.

The picture above shows clearly how simple it will be from now on to blur people’s faces on Youtube.

PS this is going to give marketers out there a fun new way to roll out teaser campaigns! I can’t wait to see who gets creative with this for their brands.