Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Print Media Liberalization and Electoral Coverage Bias in Kuwait

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Print Media Liberalization and Electoral Coverage Bias in Kuwait

Article excerpt

The article discusses the political effect of print media liberalization in Kuwait based on content analysis of Arabic language newspapers in the 2009 parliamentary election. The analysis found no systematic favoring of pro-government candidates in electoral coverage, but did find a statistically significant bias for candidates from the ruling, non-Bedouin hadari class, at the expense of the Bedouin tribal population. This article points to there being structural obstacles to democracy in Kuwait that cannot be overcome only by the liberalization of the press through legislation.

As the Middle East moves past the stage of state media monopolies, the question of media and democratization takes on new salience. Media liberalization is expected to strengthen the opposition in authoritarian political contexts. Free and independent media support freedom of expression and allow for informed decisions by giving citizens access to a variety of opinions and ideas. However, there are dangers to media freedom and independence, ranging from predatory state intervention to the "tyranny of the market" and the hegemony of social and cultural groups.1 When authoritarian regimes liberalize media, those in power often find ways to extend their influence to the nominally private sector.2

This article investigates this topic through a case study of Kuwait, a hybrid political regime - that combines democratic procedures with authoritarian practices3 - with a burgeoning print media. In 2006, the Kuwaiti National Assembly (KNA) passed a new press and publication law that eased restrictions on newspaper licenses and deprived the government of the right to close down media outlets as a simple administrative procedure.4 As a consequence, between 2006 and 2009, the Kuwaiti newspaper market expanded threefold from five to 15 Arabic language dailies. This article analyzes the role of this growing newspaper market in the 2009 parliamentary election in Kuwait.

In the years leading up to the election, Kuwait went through a period of unprecedented political turbulence. The opposition launched repeated attacks on then prime minister Shaykh Nasir al-Muhammad al-Sabah in parliament that his uncle, the emir, Shaykh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jabir al-Sabah, evaded on more than one occasion by dissolving either the government, the KNA, or both. In total, between 2006 and 2009, the emir suspended five governments and disbanded the legislature on three occasions. The 2009 election brought a temporary halt to this round of government and parliament reshuffles by creating a robust majority in favor of Prime Minister Shaykh Nasir al-Muhammad. This article is interested in Kuwaiti print media's contribution to this electoral outcome.

Kuwaiti print media are under the influence of political clientelism. The instrumentalization of privately owned media by ruling family members and the affiliated business elite is endemic.5 Knowing that the newspaper market is too small to sustain the current number of titles, the spectacular growth in Arabic-language newspapers sparked controversy in Kuwait over who was funding these publications, which operate at a financial loss. Most speculations focused on Al Sabah princes and especially Prime Minister Shaykh Nasir al-Muhammad, who many believed to be providing funds for nominally private newspapers. In the KNA, legislators from the opposition made strong public accusations against the ruling family and lashed out at what it dubbed "the corrupt media" (al-i'lam al-fasid).6

The ability of authoritarian rulers to manipulate political and economic liberalization for the sake of their political survival is often discussed in the political science literature.7 There have, however, been few examinations of how authoritarianism in the Arab world outlives the gradual liberalization of media. When media developments are analyzed in the context of democracy in the Arab world, the focus tends to be on satellite television and social media as tools to take down rulers. …

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