Kuwait’s ban on cameras, freedom of the press is a puzzle

By IKU KAWACHI

While Kuwait, a country of 3.6 million located in the northeast portion of the Arabian Peninsula, has never exactly been viewed as the gold standard for press freedom, its latest policy is one that is sure to baffle reporters and tourists alike: the Ministry of Information, Ministry of Social Affairs, and Ministry of Finance have announced that digital single lens reflex (SLR) cameras will be banned from all public locations throughout the nation.

The country is banning only digital SLRs from streets, malls, public buildings and the like, meaning compact digital cameras and cell phone cameras are still permitted. Photography is not permitted at many Islamic mosques in the Middle East and Muslim women are often opposed to being photographed because of their religious beliefs. Whether these policies and customs have anything to do with the law, however, are unclear, especially since the Kuwaiti government “doesn’t seem terribly interested in discussing” the matter.

Regardless of the exact reasons, the law raises a host of additional questions: Why does the ban apply only to digital SLRs, when compact digital cameras in the right hands are just as capable of producing good images? How will Micro Four Thirds or mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras be classified? And how does the government plan to enforce such a law, anyway? Plenty of compact cameras are black and have protruding lenses; in much the same way, many newer digital SLRs are brightly colored and even small enough to fit in pockets.

Most importantly: what does it say about freedom of press in the State of Kuwait?

What’s interesting is that Kuwait has scored relatively well in that department in recent years: it was ranked 87th out of 178 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index for 2010, top among all Gulf nations and ahead of notable countries like India (122), Mexico, Singapore (tie-136), and the People’s Republic of China (171). The Kuwaiti government’s latest move has already gained notoriety on the Web, however, and it is unlikely to win it any favors in the eyes of the international media. (For those curious, the United States was ranked 20th, with Finland, Iceland, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland all tying for first.)

The Press Freedom Index, of course, is not without its limitations: it fluctuates heavily based on individual perception, especially in countries with less data (and smaller sample sizes), and its rankings are never without controversy. It does, however, provide a valuable measure of the “room” journalists have to operate in a given country, assessing both direct attacks and indirect pressures on reporters and the media.

Freedom of the press is a key component of human rights in a given country, and remains integral to the functioning of society. For more information, the complete Press Freedom Index 2010 rankings can be accessed via both Reporters Without Borders and Wikipedia.

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