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Upsurge in court cases against journalists despite decriminalisation of press offences

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders expressed its disquiet at an upsurge in cases being brought against journalists in Kuwait, despite the fact it was the first Gulf state to decriminalise press offences.

"The 2006 press law reform profoundly transformed the emirate's media landscape. We urge the authorities to continue to strengthen the protection of the right to be informed and to inform the public", the worldwide press freedom organisation said.

"The appointment of special judges at a time of a rising number of disputes would provide an extra guarantee to journalist defendants", the organisation added.

Fuad al-Hashem, of the Kuwaiti daily "al-Watan", was on 28 May 2008 ordered to pay the equivalent of almost 22,000 euros in damages for defamation as a result of three cases brought by the Prime Minister of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad ben Jassem al-Thani.

He had accused the journalist of harming his reputation in his articles dealing with his relations with the state of Israel. Al-Hashem told Reporters Without Borders that he has faced more than 20 proceedings against him, most of them brought by deputies, who accused him of damaging their image with their electorate.

"These days Kuwaiti journalists have to take great care and avoid resorting to self-censorship to protect themselves from the intolerance of some politicians who do not accept any criticism", he said. His appeal has been set for September 2008.

In another case, Saad al-Ajimi, correspondent for satellite news channel al-Arabiya, is being sued for "insult" following a defamation case brought by religious leader Hamid al-Ali. The journalist was interviewed by the prosecutor's office on 8 June 2008, more than five months after the broadcast, on 1 February, of the programme "Sina'at al-Mowt" (the death industry) about "the history of al-Qaeda in Kuwait". In reference to the complainant, the journalist had said that members of the movement had met "several religious fundamentalist dignitaries in Kuwait".

Al-Ajimi told Reporters Without Borders that "the number of cases laid against journalists in Kuwait has risen constantly since reform of the press law, which certainly removed the threat of imprisonment for journalists but provided for fines which are far too harsh."

Faisal al-Qinai, Secretary General of the Kuwaiti Journalists' Association, told Reporters Without Borders that scores of journalists had asked for legal assistance to defend themselves at these trials. Such was the case of Ahmed Abderrahman al-Quss, who also works for the daily "al-Watan" and is facing a defamation case brought by the deputy Ali al-Rashid, who is seeking 100,000 dinars (238,000 euros) in damages.
The Kuwait parliament in March 2006 adopted a new press law allowing far greater freedom to the emirates' journalists. The decriminalisation of press offences however remains limited, since the new law contains numerous exceptions - such as damage to religion - that come under the criminal code. On the other hand, the reform has brought to an end the state monopoly on media licensing. Kuwait now has 15 daily newspapers and dozens of privately-owned television channels.

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