Governmental doublespeak
Yemen and Kuwait have both bound themselves to a number of international human rights treaties guaranteeing freedom of expression, particularly the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the right to ‘seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds’. But journalists and activists in both these countries have been arrested many […]
18 Jul 07

Yemen and Kuwait have both bound themselves to a number of international human rights treaties guaranteeing freedom of expression, particularly the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the right to ‘seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds’. But journalists and activists in both these countries have been arrested many times for exercising this right.

Just last month in Yemen, a prominent editor of an opposition newspaper was jailed for allegedly having ties to a terrorist group. In Kuwait, an outspoken human rights advocate was confined for two weeks in a mental hospital for burning a flag in a public protest.

On 20 June, Yemeni security services raided the home of Abdel Abdul Karim al Khaiwani, the editor of Al Shora, a leading Yemeni opposition newspaper.

According to the International Herald Tribune, Yemeni officers pulled al Khaiwani from his home in his night clothes and beat him. Local journalists, including Mohammed al Asaadi, former editor of the Yemen Observer, and Ebtihal Mubarak of the Arab News, suggested several possible motivations for the arrest. These range from al Khaiwani’s vocal opposition to government tactics during the recently quelled rebellion around the northern city of Sa’dah, to his plan to publish an article decrying perceived manoeuvring to ensure that Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s son succeeds him in office.

The government justified the arrest by claiming that al Khaiwani had ties to 18 people recently arrested for belonging to a terrorist cell. This claim was based largely on his possession of documents related to the recent rebellion. Despite protests by journalists, the penal court ruled that al-Khaiwani will be held for a month without bail while authorities investigate his alleged ties to terrorism.

This is not al Khaiwani’s first trip to prison in Yemen. In 2005, he was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment, after being found guilty on charges of incitement, insulting the president, publishing false news, and causing tribal and sectarian discrimination. President Saleh pardoned al Khaiwani two days after sentencing, but the incident caused severe damage to al Khaiwani’s reputation and his other interests; according to reports by Reporters sans Frontières, his newspaper was shut down for six months, and thereafter it was forced to retreat to online-only form. Prior to al Khaiwani’s tenure as editor, Human Rights Watch reported that Al Shora had been shut down for six months for allegedly defaming the leader of a mainstream political party, and one of its journalists received 80 lashes and a year-long ban from writing.

Al Khaiwani’s arrests are part of a pattern of intimidation in Yemen, Michael Kozak, Acting US Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, noted in testimony before the US Congress. And Yemen’s press law affords little if any refuge for those seeking to express their views. For example, it only allows licensed individuals to work as journalists and prohibits criticism of the head of state, albeit with the proviso that the prohibition does not ‘necessarily apply to constructive criticism’.

While Yemen has the essential structures of democracy in place, including contested elections and an independent legislature, the lack of a truly free press leaves the country without a marketplace of ideas to compete with the incumbent government’s preferred policy views. In the words of one activist quoted on local website NewsYemen, civil society in Yemen is governed by a ‘totalitarian mentality’.

In what appears to be another blatant infringement on freedom of expression, on 21 June an activist and journalist was arrested and sent to a mental institution in Kuwait after burning a flag in a non-violent public protest.

According to the Kuwait Times, Dr Omran al Qarashi burned the British and American flags in front of a mosque as part of his protest at Britain’s decision to award a knighthood to novelist Salman Rushdie. Although flag burning is illegal in Kuwait, the arrest also provided an opportunity to quell al Qarashi’s vocal opposition to human rights violations in the country.

Described by many as a passionate and outspoken political critic, the Kuwait Times reports that al Qarashi has been imprisoned and sent to psychiatric hospitals multiple times over the years for other non-violent protests including carrying signs reading ‘Down with Israel’ and ‘Down with the USA’. According to the Kuwait Times, officials have repeatedly confined al Qarashi in a mental hospital despite medical reports stressing that he was not suffering from any psychological disorder. The Kuwait Times also reports that the Ministry of Interior confiscated al Qarashi’s passport more than five years ago, and that he was forced to retire from teaching at Kuwait University. Al Qarashi has a PhD in chemical engineering.

According to a member of the Kuwait Journalists Association, al Qarashi was released at 3:00 am on 4 July after a member of the Kuwait parliament personally requested that he be freed.

The Kuwaiti Constitution asserts that ‘the right to express opinions freely is guaranteed’, yet according to the US Department of State, the Kuwaiti government has significantly restricted these rights in practice. The Printing and Publications Law prohibits, among many other things, criticising the emir and ‘attacking friendly countries’.

And recently, in a broader step at limiting freedom of speech, the Kuwait Times reported that the Interior Ministry compiled a detailed list of articles, advertisements and banners that could no longer be printed without official approval, including displaying ‘slogans that glorify some countries against others’.

These actions by the Kuwaiti government would be considered violations of fundamental liberties in many countries, even by some of the most conservative viewpoints. For instance, in the landmark case of Texas vs Johnson, the US Supreme Court held that political speech should receive the highest level of protection from interference by the government. The court overturned the conviction of a man who was prosecuted for burning an American flag in violation of a state law that criminalised ‘the desecration of a venerated object’.

The court held that the government cannot criminally punish flag burning because it is a legitimate form of political expression. Even though some might have considered the flag burner’s acts offensive, the constitution’s ban on laws ‘abridging the freedom of speech’ protects expressing dissatisfaction with government in this non-violent way.

The arrests of al Khaiwani and al Qarashi follow in the wake of an alarming trend of governments restricting the non-violent expression of ideas through censorship. Both Yemen and Kuwait have publicly acknowledged the illegitimacy of such censorship, however, by binding themselves to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which forbids it. It is time for these countries to acknowledge their international and moral obligations – and to nurture their own fledgling democracies along the way – by freeing al Khaiwani and acknowledging the wrong done to al Qarashi.

Daniel J Freeman is a recent graduate of Yale Law School. Shaina D Jones is a student at Vanderbilt University Law School. Both are summer associates at the Washington-based law firm Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, LLP, which specialises in defending the news media

By Padraig Reidy

Padraig Reidy is the editor of Little Atoms and a columnist for Index on Censorship. He has also written for The Observer, The Guardian, and The Irish Times.