As a consequence of the recent arrests and subsequent incarceration of a number of Kuwaiti citizens on charges related to the abuse of social networks via different social media platforms and breaking the law — with some having been slapped with sentences between five and ten years — a debate has spread across Kuwaiti society over the use and abuse of the means of modern, social communications.

In view of the current scenario, the Euro-Gulf Research Unit at Kuwait University recently organised a seminar under the title ‘Freedom of Expression and National Security Issues in the Age of Information’. A number of Kuwaiti and British academics participated in the seminar.

The British experience was quite interesting. The speakers referred to the riots that took place in London in 2011, which were triggered through social networks in general and particularly through a smartphone brand offering free communication.

One speaker said that news appeared on Twitter that a riot had broken out at a certain place and when the police rushed to those areas, they discovered that nothing was wrong and that the rumour was spread by mobs in order to disrupt police efforts to quell the disturbances.

The Kuwaiti experience differs from the British one in the sense that it has been facing a period of prolonged political unrest over a number of issues, some of which involved writing unacceptable and degrading words on Twitter in reference to persons in high offices — in contravention of law and the constitution. The constitution states, for instance, that the Ruler cannot be criticised.

The political climate in Kuwait is so tense that almost everything has been politicised, even the social networks. Legal experts are busy debating what can be written and what can be considered over the cliff. They admit that the offenders had indeed overstepped, but at the same time, they also feel that five to ten years’ imprisonment is too harsh in relation to the crime committed.

Comparing the common laws in Britain with the written laws of Kuwait, the seminar conceded that the judiciary in Britain took its time to pass judgements on persons who abuse the system, as there is a very thin line between freedom of speech and offences against others.

Misuse of the system

No society or state today has found the right balance between the right to free speech and preventing the abuse of social communication channels. Some governments have legislations against certain misuse of the system, such as spreading hatred amongst groups in society or contempt of religions.

In fact, we are witnessing some sort of a war — with no rules and regulations. It is not war between nations, but a war within societies and perhaps the worst form of war that could exist. It is there for everyone to see — young and old, men and women, educated and illiterate. Its weapons are only words, but they can be devastating for individuals, families — and even states.

The world is faced with new tools, with power and no responsibility whatsoever. Journalists writing in newspapers or appearing on television have to go by certain rules and regulations, but what about those individuals who hide behind stage names or aliases?

They can say whatever they wish, with no control at all. They can indulge in nasty social gossip, spread false information about others, show contempt and misinform people.

The seminar at Kuwait University succeeded in shedding some light on the multifaceted aspect of freedom of speech in an age of information. Yet, a lot more can still be said and studied before any reasonable solution can be put in place.

Such seminars are a step in the right direction on the long road that Kuwaiti society is currently trudging on — with some heading to jail and others, angry with the current situation, taking the issue to the streets.

Mohammed Alrumaihi is a professor of political sociology at Kuwait University.