Censorship is routinely discussed as an ingredient of authoritarian political cultures that varies depending on the system that produces it. Liberal theories of censorship view it as an external, coercive, and repressive mechanism that can be challenged, amended, abolished by applying pressure through the channels of decision-making. On the other hand, ‘new censorship’ theories claim that state repression is merely secondary to subtler, more consensual forms of manipulation, evident in discourse euphemisation. From this perspective, censorship can be a co-productive determinant of discourse, rather than an evil imposed by governments and violating the fundamental human rights of free expression. The critical theoretical position may also propose that traditional liberal rationales for free expression are “instruments of Western patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism” (Jensen, 1993/2019, p.257).
The paper explores the explanatory power of these two perspectives in the context of literary censorship as experienced by authors in Kuwait.
Kuwait’s 2006 press law states that no prior censorship will be applied to print publications. However, the law’s provisions have long been at odds with actual practice: publishers and self-publishing authors of literary works routinely submit copies of their books for pre-publication approval to the Ministry of Information’s Censorship on Artistic Works Department. The practices of the ministry and the Kuwaiti publishing and bookselling communities have jointly created a customary law supporting censorship in the name of protecting the welfare of society from potentially harmful ideas.
Qualitative, semi-structured interviews conducted with 16 traditionally and self-published Kuwaiti authors of poetry and fiction about their encounters with censorship are analysed as the authors’ means for expressing and negotiating their experiences.
The interviews reveal that authors in Kuwait predominantly frame their experiences in terms of liberal thought. Faced with the guardians of public communication installed in the censorship department, their reactions range from shrugging off censorship as just a routine procedure through feeling frustration and anxiety to vocally criticising the system for being arbitrary, absurd, and backward. At the same time, the authors’ accounts point towards traces of censorship as articulated by new theories, particularly in their awareness of the necessity of writing in codes. The subtler, more consensual forms of censoring expression permeate Kuwaiti culture and society, but their restrictive impacts tend to go unremarked upon and unchallenged, for now.