Print media in Kuwait: Pluralism with a bias
The number of newspapers in Kuwait has skyrocketed, but their owners are all closely affiliated to the political elite. Does this lead to a certain bias in the newspaper’s electoral coverage?
In 2006, the Kuwaiti National Assembly passed a new press and publications law that eased the restrictions on newspaper licenses and made it harder for the government to close down media outlets. The new law caused the newspaper market in Kuwait to explode. The number of Arabic language dailies went from five to 15 in three years. The majority of the newspapers were owned by members of the ruling family or by the business elite closely linked to them.
Before the election in 2009, critical voices spoke up against Prime Minister Shaykh Nasir al-Muhammad and his cronies in the media market. Accusations were hailing. Skeptics claimed that the Prime Minister used his influence to eliminate opposition and tighten his grip over the National Assembly.
If the Kuwaiti press had been reduced to an instrument of power at the hands of the Prime Minister, wouldn’t the critics be right to fear that the pro-government candidates would be favoured in the electoral coverage?
Reflecting social divides
In a new article published in the Middle East Journal, Kjetil Selvik, senior researcher at the Chr. Michelsen Institute takes a closer look at the accusations against Prime Minister Shaykh Nasir al-Muhammad. With co-authors Jon Nordenson and Tewodros Kebede he pursues the hypothesis that Kuwaiti print media were instrumental for electing a pro-government majority in the Kuwaiti National Assembly in 2009, but their findings do not support the critics’ claim.
-There is no statistical evidence that the print media as a whole favoured pro-government candidates in their electoral coverage, says Selvik.
What the researchers did find was a systematic bias for candidates from the non-Bedouin hadari class at the expense of the Bedouin tribal population. The bias points to a deeper structural class segmentation in Kuwaiti society. Kuwait’s tribal population is not only underrepresented in the media. It is also underrepresented in the National Assembly.
Yet, social divides like the divide between the hadari and the tribal population in Kuwait, are rarely mentioned in literature on media and the role they play in democratization processes.
-Many scholars stress that liberalization of the media in itself is not enough for the media to play a role in democratization processes, but their argument has been the elite connections that exist between regimes and nominally “private” investors. We try to widen the scope. The media are part of a larger social and political context, says Selvik.
In Kuwait, the print media bias has social roots and manifests itself in the underrepresentation of the tribal population. It is the result of the country’s history of historical dominance and financial superiority of the hadar class.
Money buys influence
It is expensive to run a newspaper, and only affordable for the economic elite. Most of the actors who were able to buy themselves influence over the media market belong to the hadar segment.
-The uneven distribution of wealth affects coverage in many ways. It decides who can afford to buy and run newspapers, it influences editorial choices and it affects the ability to buy coverage in the newspapers. On all levels, the tribal population loses out, says Selvik.
When media bias has roots in social cleavages it cannot be overcome by the liberalization of the press law only. Kuwait could probably reduce the effect of hadar dominance if the state actively tried to do so, for instance through press subsidies. But media liberalization in Kuwait was not accompanied by redistribution of wealth and power.
Vibrant media, polarized debate
Kuwait is somewhat of an outlier in the Middle East and is proof that a vibrant public sphere is possible even in an authoritarian regime. The country has a long tradition for a free and relatively liberal press. Arabic-language newspapers have been the only private media service for decades and still retain a special position. Private TV stations started to provide electoral coverage in 2006. Social media also played an important part.
-Throughout the Middle East, expansions in the media market have led to increased polarization. Kuwait is no exception. It is not necessarily the number of print or electronic media that are short in supply, but media that are characterized by internal pluralism, says Selvik.