a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media, although these rights were routinely violated. The law also imposes penalties on persons who create or send “immoral” messages, spread false news, and gives unspecified authorities the power to suspend communication services to individuals on national security grounds. The number of individuals convicted for expressing their opinions was not available at year’s end.
Freedom of Expression: The law bans certain issues for publication and public discussion. Topics banned for publication include insulting religion, in particular Islam; criticizing the amir; endangering relations between Kuwait and friendly countries; insulting members of the judiciary or displaying disdain for the constitution; compromising classified information; sorcery; and publishing information that could lead to a devaluation of the currency or false economic worries. The Public Prosecutor investigated COVID-19-related cases concerning the dissemination of allegedly false news. In general, local activists, academics, journalists, and opposition political figures reported they were regularly contacted by KSS, Ministry of Information, and Public Prosecutor’s Office officials after they published opinions deemed contrary to government positions. Government authorities did not always take immediate action in the cases of social media posts made by citizens while overseas to which the authorities objected, but under the law, the government may take action once the author returns to the country. There was broad latitude in the interpretation of what constitutes a crime when voicing dissent against the amir or the government, and activists can face up to seven years in prison for each count of the offense. A lawyer said in July that the Publicity, Information, and Publication Affairs Prosecution prosecuted approximately 9,000 cases related to social media or traditional media publications over the past three years.
The courts continued to sentence political activists to harsh prison sentences for charges of speaking out against the amir, the government, religion, or neighboring states.
In January the Court of Cassation refused bail for social media influencer Jamal al-Najada who was sentenced to three months in prison for insulting the Public Prosecutor’s Office in a leaked audio recording.
In 2020 the Court of Appeals and Cassation determined a 2014 conviction against outspoken opposition member of parliament Bader al-Dahoum for insulting the amir did not disqualify him for running for parliament. In March, however, the Constitutional Court reversed that decision and al-Dahoum was removed from the National Assembly.
Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a variety of views within legally permissible limits. All print media were privately owned, although their independence was limited by law and self-censorship based on fear of prosecution. The government did not permit non-Islamic religious publishing companies, although several churches published religious materials solely for their congregations’ use. The law allows for large fines and up to 10 years in prison for persons who use any means (including media) to subvert the state. The Ministry of Information may request that the Ministry of Commerce and Industry ban any media organization; media organizations can challenge media bans in the administrative courts. Newspaper publishers must obtain an operating license from the Ministry of Information. Both government and privately owned broadcast media are subject to the same laws as print media. According to the Ministry of Justice, there were 22 cases involving violations of the electronic media law.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: In January amendments to the Press and Publications Law came into effect that dismantled the Ministry of Information’s oversight committee for imported publications (mainly books). Publishers importing books are no longer required to obtain prior permission from the Ministry of Information to import books, and they are only expected to provide the book title, the author’s name, the number of copies to be imported, and a copy of the book to the Ministry of Information. They remain liable to legal action if the courts receive an official complaint from the public. Other amendments to the Press and Publications Law prohibited publishing any content that “stirs up sectarianism or tribal strife” or racist ideas. According to the Ministry of Information, the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs (awqaf means endowment) reviewed books of a religious nature.
Media outlets exhibited a range of opinions on topics relating to social problems, but all apparently self-censored, avoiding critical discussion on topics such as the amir, foreign policy, and religion, to avoid criminal charges or fines or to keep their licenses. Discussions of certain sensitive topics, such as sex, were also self-censored. Authorities censored most English-language educational materials that mentioned the Holocaust and required educational material either to refer to Israel as “Occupied Palestine” or to remove such references entirely, although authorities did not censor these topics in news media. Widely available satellite dishes and virtual private networks allowed unfiltered media access.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law mandates jail terms for anyone who “defames religion,” and any Muslim citizen or resident may file criminal charges against a person the complainant believes has defamed Islam. Any citizen may file a complaint with authorities against anyone the citizen believes harmed public morals. The constitution states the amir is “immune and inviolable” and the penal code and press and publications law criminalize defamation and criticism of the amir.
National Security:The law forbids the publication or transmission of any information deemed subversive to the constitutional system on national security grounds. The government prosecuted online bloggers, political activists, and social media outlets under the Cybercrime Law, the Printing and Publications Law, and the National Security Law. The government generally restricted freedom of speech in instances purportedly related to national security, including the glorification of Saddam Hussein and references to the “Arabian Gulf” as the “Persian Gulf.”
Authorities arrested prominent human rights defender and lawyer Hani Hussein in 2020 and charged him with “broadcasting false news about the Saudi-Kuwait Neutral Zone” and violating the national unity law. Hussein was released on bail and was found innocent by the Court of First Instance, but the government appealed the decision. In September the Court of Cassation acquitted Hussein of all charges.
The law criminalizes certain online activities, including unauthorized access to information technology systems and confidential information; blackmail; use of the internet for terrorist activity; money laundering; and utilizing the internet for human trafficking. The cybercrime department at the Ministry of Interior received 2,023 cybercrime related complaints during the year.
The government’s E-Licensing program requires bloggers and websites that provide news in the country to register with the Ministry of Information and apply for a license or face a fine. Information on the number of new registration applications, rejected applications, existing registered sites, and fines issued were unavailable.
The government continued to monitor internet communications, such as blogs and discussion groups, for defamation and general security reasons. The Ministry of Communications blocked websites considered to “incite terrorism and instability” and required internet service providers to block websites that “violate [the country’s] customs and traditions.” The government prosecuted and punished individuals for the expression of political or religious views via the internet, including by email and social media, based on laws related to libel, national unity, and national security. The government prosecuted some online bloggers under the Printing and Publications Law and the National Security Law.
In June an Egyptian resident was arrested and deported by security forces for “insulting the country” in a social media post in which he criticized the weather. In November local media reported a citizen who was sentenced in 2017 for criticizing Saudi Arabia on Twitter went on a hunger strike after the central prison transferred him to a cell occupied by convicted terrorists; he remained imprisoned at the end of year.
The government filtered the internet primarily to block pornography and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or intersex (LGBTQI+) material (to include health, advocacy, and legal information) as well as sites critical of Islam. The Communication and Information Technology Regulatory Authority (CITRA) blocked 82 websites during the year and unblocked 13. CITRA reported that the blocked websites included content considered offensive to the state and harmful to public morals. According to CITRA websites are blocked upon receipt of a request from the Public Prosecutor’s Office or KSS.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The law provides for the freedoms of opinion and research, but self-censorship limited academic freedom, and the law prohibits academics from criticizing the current and previous amirs or Islam. The government censored academic curricula for topics relating to the Holocaust, sex, and other sensitive subjects. The government restricted artistic presentations and theatrical performances if they were perceived to damage public morals.
The Ministry of Interior reserved the right to approve or reject public events it considered politically or morally inappropriate.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government limited freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
Noncitizens and Bidoon are prohibited from demonstrating. The government requires citizens to obtain permits for public gatherings of more than 20 persons. Bidoon activists reported that if they tried to assemble peacefully or organize campaigns to gain equal rights, authorities regularly harassed them. Some Bidoon activists indicated they were detained for questioning by authorities each time they planned campaigns or protests.
In July the Ministry of Interior deported a Jordanian resident for taking part in a gathering to protest the government’s decision barring unvaccinated individuals from entering malls. During the gathering he spoke to local television stations and criticized the ban.
Freedom of Association
The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government placed restrictions on this right. The law prohibits officially registered organizations from engaging in political activities.
The government used its power to register associations as a means of political influence and to limit public engagement on controversial topics or proscribed activities. The Ministry of Social Affairs can reject an NGO’s application if it deems the NGO does not provide a public service. Most instances in which the government closed a charity resulted from the charity not properly reporting fundraising activities, including failing to obtain permission from the ministry to fundraise or failing to submit annual financial reports. Dozens of unlicensed civic groups, clubs, and unofficial NGOs had no legal status, and many of those chose not to register due to bureaucratic inconvenience, including inability to meet the minimum 50-member threshold. The Ministry of Social Affairs continued to reject some new license requests, contending established NGOs already provided services like those the petitioners proposed. Members of licensed NGOs must obtain permission from the ministry to attend international conferences as official representatives of their organization.
Following the submission of a large number of applications from inactive NGOs to take part in activities abroad, the Ministry of Social Affairs’ NGOs Department in 2019 set regulations for NGO members to take part in conferences, lectures, and seminars held outside the country, including limiting the maximum number of participants to two per NGO, ensuring the conference theme is part of the goals of the concerned organization’s establishment, and notifying the ministry at least one month in advance.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement and the Right to Leave the Country
The constitution generally provides for freedom of internal movement, but numerous laws constrain foreign travel.
With limited paths to citizenship, all legal noncitizen workers are considered foreign workers rather than migrants.
Foreign Travel: Bidoon residents and foreign workers faced problems with, or restrictions on, foreign travel. The government restricted the ability of many Bidoon residents to travel abroad by not issuing them travel documents, although it permitted some Bidoon residents to travel overseas for medical treatment and education, and to visit Saudi Arabia for the annual Hajj. The Ministry of Interior issued Article 17 passports (temporary documents that do not confer nationality) to some Bidoon for these purposes, if they held valid identification documents issued by the Central Agency for Illegal Residents and did not have security restrictions placed on their file. Migrant workers who obtain emergency travel documents from their home country embassy are required to obtain permission from the PAM and the Ministry of Interior to exit the country. The Ministry of Interior announced that domestic workers would lose their residencies if they remained outside of the country for more than six months starting on December 1.
The law also permits travel bans on citizens and noncitizens accused or suspected of violating the law, including nonpayment of debts, and it allows citizens to petition authorities to impose a travel ban on others. This provision was sometimes imposed arbitrarily and resulted in delays and difficulties for citizens and foreigners leaving the country. Human rights activists reported being banned from travel to prevent them from participating in overseas events. They claim the government told them they were put under a travel ban for failing to pay parking tickets or other small fines.
Citizenship: By law the government is prohibited from revoking the citizenship of an individual who was born a citizen unless that individual has taken a second nationality. The government can revoke the citizenship of naturalized citizens for cause and can subsequently deport them. The justifications for such revocations include felony conviction for “honor-related and honesty-related crimes,” obtaining citizenship dishonestly, and threatening to “undermine the economic or social structure of the country.” In 2018 the Court of Cassation, the country’s highest court, affirmed that it is not permissible to withdraw citizenship from any citizen without a legitimate reason, stressing that a final court ruling must justify any withdrawal of citizenship.
On occasion the government revokes citizenships. In August media reported the Supreme Committee for Nationality Verification revoked the citizenship of 54 citizens, mostly women with dual nationalities. The Supreme Committee, however, reported that it revoked the citizenship of 10 citizens during the reporting period. If a person loses citizenship, all family members whose status was derived from that person also lose their citizenship and all associated rights. Absent holding another nationality, those impacted would become stateless. Authorities can seize the passports and civil identification cards of persons who lose their citizenship and enter a “block” on their names in government databases. This “block” prevents former citizens from traveling with the country’s passports or accessing free health care and other government services reserved for citizens.
The law prohibits the granting of citizenship to non-Muslims, but it allows non-Muslim male citizens to transmit citizenship to their descendants.
The government may deny a citizenship application by a resident based on security or criminal violations committed by the individual’s family members.
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
f. Protection of Refugees
The government generally cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, or asylum seekers, as well as other persons of concern.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protections to refugees. The country is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 protocols. While the government did not grant refugee status or asylum during the year, as of October, UNHCR officially recognized 2,047 persons of concern in the country. These persons of concern were legally in the country under employment contracts and were seeking resettlement in a third country. Of these individuals, 1,126 were Iraqi, 196 were Syrian, and 725 were other nationalities. The constitution prohibits the extradition of political refugees.
Employment: Most asylum seekers and refugees were from Iraq, Somalia, and Syria, and many were assisted by nongovernmental organizations pending determination of their refugee status and resettlement applications by UNHCR. Many reported being increasingly fearful of losing their job, residence status, or both. With COVID-19 many lost their jobs and associated residence permits, putting them at risk of deportation.
Access to Basic Services: Government policies made public health care more expensive for foreign workers but placed a cap on education fees. UNHCR received feedback from persons of concern that healthcare expenses were beyond their reach. They also had challenges enrolling their children in schools, particularly those who did not have valid residency permits. Support for children with disabilities was limited and often inaccessible for foreigners.
g. Stateless Persons
UNHCR estimated there were 92,000 stateless persons in the country in 2020. UNHCR’s estimate included Bidoon residents who are stateless Arabs considered illegal residents by authorities and not granted citizenship. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and press, however, estimated the Bidoon resident population at more than 100,000. Data from the Central Agency for Illegal Residents on the number of Bidoon residents in country was not available. The law does not provide stateless persons, including Bidoon persons, a clear path to acquire citizenship. The judicial system’s lack of authority to rule on the status of Bidoon residents further complicated the process for obtaining citizenship, leaving Bidoon with no access to the judiciary to present evidence and plead their case for citizenship.
The government contributed to statelessness through discrimination against women in nationality laws. Citizen women are not allowed to transmit nationality to their child or spouse. If a citizen woman marries a Bidoon man, their children become stateless and likely will have difficulty accessing basic education and medical services.
The Central Agency for Illegal Residents oversees Bidoon resident affairs. In August the Council of Ministers issued two resolutions that extended the agency’s expired term by two additional years and reappointed the head of the agency. Bidoon residents, Bidoon rights advocates, members of parliament, and human rights activists protested the decision, arguing that the agency had not been effective in resolving matters pertaining to the Bidoon, and that conditions for Bidoon residents had dramatically deteriorated under the agency’s leadership. They pointed to several Bidoon community members who had died by suicide in recent years due to dire social and economic conditions, including a 12-year-old boy in February. The agency received tens of thousands of citizenship requests by Bidoon residents for review since its establishment in 2010. Data on the number of requests accepted by the Central Agency was unavailable. In August the Ministry of Interior summoned 19 Bidoon activists for organizing an unauthorized weekly gathering and for insulting the Central Agency on the audio based social media platform Club House.
According to Bidoon advocates and government officials, many Bidoon residents were unable to provide documentation proving ties to the country sufficient to qualify for citizenship. Since the government considers Bidoon illegal residents, many lacked identification cards, which impeded access to education, prevented them from engaging in legal employment, or obtaining travel documents.
Security cards provide Bidoon residents with access to basic services. In January the Ministry of Defense requested more than 600 of its Bidoon employees renew their expired security cards to amend their legal working status. Some did not, however, receive renewed security cards from the agency because they were required to declare a different nationality. In August a Bidoon resident attempted to set himself on fire after the agency refused to renew his security card.
Although Bidoon residents are by law entitled to government benefits – including free healthcare, education, and ration cards – community members have alleged it was often difficult for them to access those services due to bureaucratic red tape. Some Bidoon residents and international NGOs reported that the government did not uniformly provide government services and benefits to Bidoon residents. In a November incident widely discussed on social media, reports stated a Bidoon child was reportedly unable to receive necessary medical treatment, and the government refused to provide him with travel documents to receive treatment abroad. In response to negative media coverage, the Ministry of Interior granted travel documents to the child and his parents in December so that he could receive treatment in Saudi Arabia. Like other noncitizens Bidoon do not have the right to own real estate. Children of citizen women married to noncitizen men, such as Bidoon, likewise cannot inherit their mother’s property, including the family home. They are forced to sell their home upon their mother’s death, or otherwise be disinherited.
Since citizen children were given priority to attend public school, a small minority of Bidoon children whose families could afford it enrolled in substandard private schools. In December the Central Agency announced in a press statement that there were 33,700 Bidoon students enrolled in public and private school for the 2020-21 academic year whose expenses were paid through a government charitable fund. Some activists alleged that they or their family members have been deprived of access to education, healthcare, and jobs for advocating on behalf of the Bidoon. In October local media reported that the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs repeatedly suspended the salaries of Bidoon employees for various periods of time, including more than a month due to budgetary issues and auditing. Citizen mothers married to Bidoon husbands, and Bidoon mothers alike, report that they are unable to access medical care easily or reliably for their children. Local media reported a government school barred a first-grade Bidoon student from attending school in November for not having a valid residence permit or passport. The student’s guardian claimed the student was registered with the school since the beginning of the academic year and had a valid security card. Local media reported that the Ministry of Education permitted the girl to reenter the school after the story was published in the news.
The government alleged that most Bidoon residents concealed their “true” nationalities and were not actually stateless. Agency officials have extended incentive benefits to Bidoon who disclose an alternate nationality, including priority employment and the ability to obtain a driver’s license. According to the Central Agency, approximately 12,700 Bidoon admitted having a claim on another nationality in 2018. Bidoon leaders, however, alleged that when some members of the Bidoon community attempted to obtain government services from the Central Agency, officials required Bidoon individuals to sign a blank piece of paper to receive the necessary paperwork. Later, Bidoon reported, the agency would write a letter on the signed paper purportedly stating they held another nationality. The Court of Cassation ruled that decisions issued by the Central Agency for Illegal Residents fall under the jurisdiction of the judiciary and as a result, are challengeable in the courts, excluding those related to citizenship status. The Central Agency was tasked with granting or revoking government identification, birth, death, or marriage certificates, recommendations for employment, and other official documentation, whereas the Supreme Committee for the Verification of Citizenship at the Ministry of Interior managed all citizenship revocations and naturalizations. Nonetheless, many Bidoon and activists on their behalf continued to accuse the Agency of not complying with the law and failing to implement court rulings requiring it to register Bidoon residents and issue them required documents.
According to international observers, some Bidoon residents underwent DNA testing purportedly to “prove” their Kuwaiti nationality by virtue of blood relation to a citizen. Bidoon residents are required to submit DNA samples confirming paternity to become naturalized, a practice critics said leaves them vulnerable to denial of citizenship based on DNA testing.
The government allowed the Bidoon sons of soldiers who were either killed, missing in action, or served in the military for 30 years to be eligible to join the military. No information was available on the number of enlisted Bidoon; however, according to a 2019 statement from the head of the Interior and Defense Parliamentary Committee, as a result more than 27,000 Bidoons were awaiting enlistment.
There were reports of violence against Bidoon residents. In November the Criminal Court sentenced a former assistant undersecretary in Ministry of Information to 10 years in prison with hard labor for kidnapping and attempting to assault a Bidoon resident.