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Twitter vs. the Emir: Tweeting in Kuwait Becoming a Dangerous Pastime

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Tweeting in Kuwait has become a dangerous pastime. A Kuwaiti tweep was charged with insulting the Emir and sentenced to the maximum punishment of five years on Sunday, becoming the latest in a string of Twitter users who have been arrested and put in prison for the opinions they expressed on the microblog. Several other influential tweeps in Kuwait have also been arrested for criticizing the ruler in recent months, while others have fallen afoul of authorities because of certain hashtags they used. And last year Kuwait marked a milestone for itself by arresting the first woman for comments made on Twitter.  

 With more than 235,000 active Twitter users, Kuwait has the highest rate of Twitter penetration of any Arab country at more than 8 percent (far surpassing the country with the next highest rate, Bahrain, at 4 percent). Kuwait has been one of the leading Arab countries in terms of social media use from the outset, particularly Twitter. And it has consistently outranked its neighbors in permitting greater space for freedom of expression, ranking Partly Free in Freedom House's annual survey of press freedom for the past several years. But increasingly, those who would use the social network to express discontent with their political system or criticize the ruler (not to mention religion) do so at their own risk. 

In January two bloggers, Ayyad al-Harbi and Rashid Saleh al-Anzi, were arrested for insulting the ruling Emir (well, actually, for intending to insult), and dozens more have been harassed and intimidated by online trolls. The Kuwaiti constitution criminalizes insulting the king, which of course is not in accordance with international law, and the country's blasphemy law makes insulting the Prophet Mohammed punishable by death.

In March 2012, seven Twitter users who used the hashtag #battery (allegedly in reference to the Emir's pacemaker) were arrested while six other tweeps were summoned the following November "for interrogation on suspicion of insulting the emir, misusing cellphones and participating in the opposition dignity marches." Among these were Sara al-Drais, a 25-year-old who became the first woman to be arrested for tweeting.

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The list of Kuwaiti social media users (who in most cases are cyberactivists who have a sociopolitical message) who have been arrested and imprisoned is growing, underscoring the fact that repressive laws extend across platforms and that social media users do not enjoy any greater freedom than journalists working in traditional/legacy media. Given that most Kuwaitis tweet and blog with their real identities, it appears that Kuwaiti authorities do not need to jump through any hoops to obtain user information: Twitter reported no government requests from Kuwait in the first half of 2012. This is not so surprising since many tweeps use their real names or make little effort to cloak their identity, and their streams are available for any and all to see.
  • Mohammad Eid al-Ajmi: sentenced to the maximum 5 year prison sentence for on Twitter insulting the Emir.
  • Ayyad al-Harbi: sentenced to 2 months in prison (Jan. 2013) on charges of slandering the Emir and spreading false news on Twitter, where he has more than 13,000 followers on Twitter .
  • Rashid Saleh al-Anzi: sentenced to 2 years in prison (Jan. 2013) over a tweet to his 5,700 followers that "stabbed the rights and powers of the emir,according to the online newspaper Alaan. 
  • Hamad Al-Naqi: accused in June 2012 of posting insulting comments about the prophet (he asserts his account was hacked) and some Kuwaitis even called for the death sentence.

  • Nasser Al-Ansary (@Nas10000): sentenced to five years in jail (Feb. 2012) for insulting the Emir.
  • Lawrence al-Rashidi: charged with "insulting the Prince and his powers in poems uploaded on YouTube" (May 2012). Apparently state security pressured "local media not to discuss the case of Al-Rishidi and after almost one year and a half in jail waiting for his trial, (Lawrence) Al-Rishidi was sentenced to ten years in jail for insulting the ruler of the country," in a YouTube video that is apparently no longer available.
  • Nasser Abul (@NasserAbuL) was apparently the first Kuwaiti arrested for what he posted on Twitter (June 2011).
  • But as far back as 2007, Kuwaiti journalist Bashar Al-Sayegh (@balsayegh) was briefly imprisoned for a comment he made on an online forum.