KUWAIT CITY — DURING the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, a few brave Kuwaitis risked death by printing underground leaflets to help organize resistance to Baghdad's rule and keep people informed of the situation inside the country. The threat of death is gone, but some of those individuals continue to publish, despite a requirement that all news media receive government approval. In the process, they are testing the power of the restored Kuwaiti government as it comes under increasing pressure for genuine democratic reform.
Three new publications took root during the seven-month Iraqi occupation, and two of these continue to defy a governmental order to seek prior permission.
``I earned my permit to publish during the occupation by having three close colleagues killed distributing my newspaper Al Sumood,'' says Ghanin al-Najjar, a political scientist and journalist formerly with Al Wadul, one of Kuwait's seven newspapers. ``If I was able to defy [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein, surely I can these people. No one is going to tell me now whether or not I can publish.''
While Al Sumood is actually a photocopied newsletter whose title roughly translates as ``steadfastness,'' Mr. Najjar says he calls it a newspaper because of its importance in carrying vital information on how to find food and water and news about internal resistance to the Iraqis. It came out 17 times during the occupation, copied and passed around wherever colleagues of Najjar could find photocopying machines.
Imprisoned briefly in Iraq near the end of the Gulf war, the 38-year-old journalist says he decided to go on publishing because the demand for a truly constitutional government, which existed before the Iraqi invasion, has yet to be met. He says that ironically he even felt freer in some ways during the long ordeal than before.
``After Iraq invaded, for the first time I was able to write with no fear of a censor,'' Najjar says in the office of the Association to Defend War Victims, a human rights organization he has also helped form. ``Sure there was fear of death, yes, but no censor. And for us that was new.''
Censorship began in 1986
Although Kuwait once enjoyed a relatively free press compared with most of its neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia, everything changed when the emir dissolved parliament in 1986 and imposed censorship. And the Iraqi occupation rekindled calls for press freedom as part of the new political order that critics of the government are now demanding.
``Before, all papers operated under censorship and have not been free since 1986,'' says Abdullah Nibarri, a former member of Parliament who is now publishing his own newsletter, Voice of the People. Also photocopied privately, the publication serves the needs of a new opposition alliance he has organized called the Democratic Forum. The fifth issue came out last weekend.
In discussing Voice of the People, the opposition leader echoed criticism frequently leveled at the government over the dire consequences of curbs on the press: the failure last August adequately to warn the public that Iraqi troops were poised to invade Kuwait's northern border.
``The press may be freer than in other places, but if this were a democracy the papers would have confirmed rumors we heard that fateful week about the real danger posed by the Iraqis,'' says Samir Nasr, a civil engineer in Kuwait City.
The headlines of various Kuwaiti newspapers from last July contain many stories about diplomatic moves to defuse the escalating border dispute between Iraq and Kuwait, including a high-level meeting between the two countries in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, the day before the invasion. But there are no reports about troop movements or any evident danger.
Before the invasion, Kuwait had five major dailies in Arabic and two in English. Two of the original Arabic papers continued to operate in exile during the occupation, from Saudi Arabia and Egypt. A new paper began publishing from London, while the others hope to resume publishing as soon as they can replace stolen equipment.
But the Information Ministry will require all to be properly licensed.
``It is a law, from long before the Iraqis came, and all publications must comply with it,'' says Amal Hamad, an official with the ministry in the partially destroyed building complex which also houses government-run Kuwait Radio and Television, the only broadcast media in the country.
Asked about unofficial publications, Mr. Hamad replies that ``anyone can publish, as long as they have government approval.''
But both Mr. Nibarri and Najjar refute this, saying the government would never approve applications for their papers should they seek official permission.
So far, the government has made no move to close either Al Sumood or Voice of the People. The two opposition editors say this may stem from what they call the ``chaos'' in the government, which is trying to reform after the Cabinet resigned March 20.
But a third newspaper, which also began during the occupation, did stop publishing after the Information Ministry issued a decree over the radio requiring all news media to obtain prior permission.
Named the ``26th of February'' after the day of liberation, the newspaper had evolved from being an underground leaflet to a full-fledged tabloid with a steadily increasing circulation (more than 30,000) when the last issue came out March 18.
Criticism of government
``The ministry sent a letter to the publishing house which we'd contracted saying they could not print anything without permission,'' says Salah al-Hashim, one of dozens of people who worked as volunteers to put the paper out. ``We were surprised, because some people from the ministry had even come out to visit and encourage us.''
He and other volunteers, including some college students, said the order came after the three last issues criticized the government's attempts to restore basic services.
``We had no intention of violating the law, so we decided to stop and wait for our application to be approved,'' said Salah Zamani, who helped edit the paper. Designed with an attractive logo and layout, the final issues also contained news stories, anti-Iraqi political cartoons, and commentaries.
``The paper was really catching on, and we hope the ministry responds soon,'' he says. But after three weeks, no word has come from the Information Ministry on the newspaper's application to resume publishing.