In a welcome move Wednesday, Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak al-Sabah offered to shelve Kuwait's controversial draft media law, according to news reports. The announcement came in what the official Kuwait News Agency (KUNA) called a "candid, frank, and expanded meeting with chief editors of Kuwaiti press."
The prime minister said, "If you are against the bill, it will be shelved," according to KUNA. He also denied the government was attempting to restrict the media, affirming, "If there is anything that we are proud of in Kuwait--it is our press freedom," reported the Kuwait Times.
National Assembly Speaker Ali Fahad al-Rashed praised the decision to delay the bill pending further review, KUNA reported. It is not clear if and when a revised bill will be put forth.
The news came just as I published a blog post calling on the government to withdraw the draft media law. While the bill has many flaws, I am particularly concerned about its inflated penalties on media outlets, restrictions on election coverage, and ambiguous regulations for online media.
The draft law is all the more shocking because, as the prime minister said yesterday, the Kuwaiti media have traditionally enjoyed greater freedom than their compatriots in the region.
That is why I think it is fitting the prime minister made his announcement in a room full of Kuwaiti journalists. Yes, international organizations like CPJ and Reporters Without Borders and regional groups like the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information all condemned the draft law. But it is Kuwaiti journalists, activists, lawyers, and politicians who deserve credit for forcing the government's hand with their forceful opposition to the bill.
With that said, the decision to shelve the draft media law does not mean the Kuwaiti government can rest on its laurels. The choice confronting the Kuwaiti government isn't between passing a bad media law and freedom of the press. In fact, the choice so far has been between keeping bad media laws on the books or passing an even worse law.
The Kuwaiti government has a far better option. It can honor its pride in the freedom of its press by striving to protect and enhance that freedom. It can begin by pardoning the numerous journalists, bloggers, and others sentenced or facing prosecution for "insulting the emir." And it can continue by passing an enlightened reform bill that truly protects the press by streamlining the legal code, decriminalizing all peaceful speech, preserving the independence of the Internet, and guaranteeing access to information.
Then the Kuwaiti government will truly have a reason to be proud.