Why Kuwait’s news outlets are ahead of the digital game

Alexandr Bakanov

Kuwaiti parliamentarians, opposition leaders, youth activists, and businessmen tend to stop talking when alerts light up their phones, which are glued to their hands and never on silent. Twitter and WhatsApp are the most frequent culprits.

Kuwait is hardly the only place in the Middle East whose residents are addicted to social media. What sets it apart, however, is just how well traditional media outlets have been able to adapt.

Even more surprising, there appears to be little in the way of a generation gap in terms of how news is consumed. Some four out of five Kuwaitis are online, putting the country on par with many in Europe; in 2013, 87 percent of those with internet access used social media, according to IPSOS. Elder statesmen are just as married to their phones as teenagers. Political statements–whether by standing parliamentarians or opposition figures–are almost always published exclusively on social media.

 

Elder statesmen are just as married to their phones as teenagers.

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Since the state’s first newspaper was launched in 1948, Kuwait has been the print capital of the Arabian Gulf. The country’s unique tolerance for free expression has made it an obvious place for journalists to report on the Middle East and debate the policies that affect it. There are still red lines, namely around reporting on the royal family. The emir is protected against defamation in the constitution, and several Twitter users have recently been jailed for criticizing him. Still, those restrictions are mild compared to elsewhere in the Gulf, and today Kuwait is home to a handful of privately owned newspapers and a growing cohort of online news sites.

Local reporters and editors say the shift online began with a string of political crises a decade ago. In January 2006, the country’s emir died, and the ailing crown prince was unable to succeed him. “During this period of constitutional conflict, the local media …failed to clarify and communicate this political situation,” argued journalism scholar Ali Abdulsamad Dashti in an academic paper. “[T]he Royal Family’s disagreements, disputes and problems, became the foremost subject of public discussions online.”

The following years saw more political turmoil, and Kuwaitis’ appetite for new voices grew. Older readers grew curious about young bloggers and their audiences. Newspapers, quick to notice the blogging boom, began to develop digital platforms. They cited blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds in their stories, which fueled a virtuous cycle: Seeing how much attention the press paid to social media posts, politicians started to write prolifically online.

 

That phenomenon culminated in 2014, when a coalition of often-feuding opposition groups surprised everyone by publishing a compromise political manifesto online. The proposal came complete with a Twitter feed and YouTube channel.

As elsewhere, many newspapers initially struggled with the shift. “In the beginning, there was some kind of resistance [against] breaking the news on the website or Twitter” instead of holding stories for the next day’s paper, recalls Bashar Al Sayegh, a former print journalist who is now owner and editor of the online outlet KuwaitNews.com. “That was a fight between the old school and the new school.”

Slowly, he says, such questions began to answer themselves. Publications like Al Jareeda, an Arabic daily, began offering reporters access to the paper’s official Twitter feed so they could speak to readers directly and break news without delay. The rationale was to be as visible—and as interactive—as possible, because news is always “the number two priority when people come online,” Al Sayegh notes. “They are online for chatting and communication, and maybe as an aside they start to follow the news accounts.” KuwaitNews and others hope to adopt applications such as Periscope, which will allow reporters to stream video live from their smartphones.

The online emphasis among news organizations has started to change the way politics is conducted here. Kuwait boasts one of the most politically open systems in the region, with a boisterous parliament that can suggest, approve, and veto laws (though final say rests with the emir-appointed cabinet). A long tradition of political debate plays out nightly in the homes of prominent Kuwaitis, who host diwaniyas—open forums where members of the public can come and sit with parliamentarians, thinkers, and friends to discuss the issues of the day over tea and sweets. (The gatherings tend to be segregated by gender, with men and women holding separate meetings.) These days, the conversations are often live-tweeted and even broadcast on social media.

Politicians have also turned social media to more sinister ends, hiring Twitter users to smear and troll their opponents, according to Mohammed Al Rumaihi, a frequent newspaper columnist and sociologist at Kuwait University. The media often gets sucked in, reporting controversies online as they happen and then summarizing the drama again for anyone who missed out on the action.

 

Seeing how much attention the press paid to social media posts, politicians started to write prolifically online.

 

Despite its embrace of all things digital, Kuwait’s old school press may have hard days ahead. As has happened globally, online advertising revenues in Kuwait have not caught up with reporting costs. Many businesses here prefer to hire social media “influencers”—Twitter savants with large followings—to promote their products rather than placing ads on news sites. Cosmetics stores, for example, are well known for hiring socialites to visit, who then live-tweet and post on Instagram about what they did, saw, or bought.

In January, Kuwait approved a new law regulating online media. When the law takes effect, likely early next year, it will require all journalistic websites to register for a license from the ministry of information (as print publications must do now). Critics fear the law could be used to shut down sites that are deemed unfavorable to the government. They cite the temporary 2014 closure of longstanding opposition papers Al-Watan and Al-Youm after they broke a news blackout on internal disputes within the ruling family.

But Al Sayegh, the KuwaitNews editor, is optimistic. The new law would allow reporters from sites like his to get credentials and attend official events, something they can’t do now. It would, in effect, codify the changes that have already taken place, leaving even less news for the morning paper.

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Elizabeth Dickinson is a Deca journalist based in the Arabian Peninsula. Follow her on Twitter @dickinsonbeth.