The Impact of Online Journalism on the Freedom of the Press: A Case Study of Kuwait

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INTRODUCTION

The development and presence of the Internet during the culmination of the 20th century not only helped to change the norms, practices, perceptions, and understanding of journalism as an industry, but also played a significant role in transforming how societies define, understand, expand, and embody their commitment to the freedom of expression. This is particularly the case with columnists at the local community level. In fact, many scholars recognize that the aspect of the Internet known as online journalism has in many ways resulted in enhancing freedom of expression. Arguably, this intellectual and cultural phenomenon has even outpaced the attempts of some governments' and political regimes' attempts at utilizing rules and regulations as a means of control. The presence of online journalism has resulted in the infusion and diffusion of massive amounts of data and information, which has directly resulted in new, unrestricted, and complex ways for which individuals to communicate freely in cyberspace. As a result, Internet technology has fostered the conditions for freedom, which has significant impact on the freedom of the press. The current political and technological changes which are occurring throughout the Gulf region in the Middle East are compelling countries in this region to re-evaluate their regulations, guidelines, and best practices, as well as legislation concerning freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

An example of this is the widely recognized phenomenon of local newspaper columnists not being permitted to publish articles in their respective newspapers, but being allowed to publish them online. In fact, many Arabic online newspapers began to use the internet to circumvent governmental regulations and control over the local press. In 2001 Elaph (www.elaph.com) became the first electronic Arabic online newspaper based in London, England, consisting of freelance journalists and columnists from Arab countries, who were able to consistently write freely without any local censorship. In the Arab world, the public's tendencies and willingness to move information to cyberspace and/or to express their ideas in this domain seem to illustrate the growing discontent surrounding the lack of freedom of expression in the local press.

In Kuwait, the internet seems to have also created an atmosphere that has encouraged the freedom of the press. Since the establishment of the Printing and Publication Law in 1961, local newspapers in Kuwait have remained under the control of five elite families (Jurdi and Dashti, 1994). However, with the introduction of the internet in the mid 1990s, many Kuwaitis began to use the internet to seek information and began to view the internet as a more reliable news source. More than this, many Kuwaitis began to use the internet as a vehicle for expressing their own individual ideas. This shift in the Kuwaiti public's view of the internet dramatically impacted all institutions of Kuwaiti life and society. One institution in particular that was considerably and immediately impacted was the local press. In fact, the internet challenged the predominant philosophy, practices, operations, and foundations of the local press, which ultimately resulted in a complete transformation in the predominant structure of the local press.

Mr. Clement Asante (1997) notes that there are levels or degrees of the freedom of the press. This simple fact illustrates the difficulty of defining the freedom of the press in universal terms (Holtz-Bacha, 2004). However, scholars have attributed many definitions to the freedom of the press. For the most part, these definitions involve removing the 'restraints' and the 'role' of the freedom of the press. Nevertheless, many of the popular definitions of the freedom of the press differ in specifying the source of restraints (1971; cited in Asante, 1997).

For other scholars (Lieberman, 1953; Hachten, 2005), the freedom of the press means the absence of government and political restraint. …