By Sylvia Westall
KUWAIT (Reuters) - Kuwait is about to take a firmer line on regulation of social media, uneasy about people who it says use Twitter and Facebook to stoke sectarian tensions and wary of spillover from turmoil in nearby Gulf states and Syria.
Although Kuwait has largely been spared the sectarian violence that flares in other countries in the region, the Sunni government is constantly aware of the potential for Sunni-Shi'ite tensions to boil over.
Authorities are particularly sensitive to developments in Bahrain, where the Sunni monarchy has cracked down on mainly Shi'ite Muslim protesters. Kuwait also borders Iraq and Saudi Arabia and sits across the Gulf from non-Arab Shi'ite power Iran.
Lately there are signs that frictions are heating up, and much of the activity is being stoked online.
"Twitter is becoming a platform that many people are using and many people are watching. You cannot look at this without neglecting what is happening in the region," said Kuwaiti Twitter user and blogger Jassim al-Qamis.
Twitter has enjoyed runaway popularity in Kuwait, whose oil wealth and freer political system have helped to shield it from Arab Spring-style anti-government demonstrations.
One million accounts were registered in the country of 3.6 million inhabitants as of April, a two-fold rise in 12 months, according to Paris-based Semiocast, which compiles Twitter data.
"You have the extreme Islamists in Kuwait and you have a tension between Saudi and Iran. This is fuelling the discussion here," said Qamis, who has written online about the unrest in Bahrain and has 2,000 followers tracking his Twitter messages.
"People are becoming proxies of powers in the region. Kuwait has become a battlefield for this."
The rift between Sunnis and Shi'ites dates back some 1,400 years, originating in a debate over who would succeed the Prophet Mohammad as leader of the Muslim community. But it now can also encompass different political, social and historical outlooks and splits down ethnic lines.
Shi'ites make up about one third of Kuwait's 1.1 million nationals and vocal members can be found in senior positions in parliament, media and business.
Sunni writer Mohammad al-Mulaifi was sentenced to seven years in jail and fined nearly $18,000 after a court ruled in April that he had posted falsehoods on Twitter about sectarian divisions in Kuwait and had insulted the Shi'ite faith.
Lawyers and rights activists said this appeared to be the strictest punishment so far for comments posted online.
Insulting religions or religious figures is illegal in Kuwait and the penalty is usually a fine or prison term. Lawmakers recently voted in favor of a legal amendment which could make such offenses punishable by death.
But it is the case of a Kuwaiti Shi'ite charged with insulting the Prophet Mohammad that has triggered the biggest public uproar.
Hamad al-Naqi was arrested in March over charges that he had insulted the Prophet, his companions and his wife on Twitter. He has denied this, saying his account was hacked, according to his lawyer.
Dozens of Sunni activists protested to condemn him, one burning an Iranian flag and accusing him of links to the Shi'ite regional power, something he has denied via his lawyer.
Naqi was attacked and slightly injured by a fellow inmate in jail as he awaits a trial, according to the Interior Ministry. If the new legislation passes he could face the death penalty.
While Kuwait's main newspapers have published editorials condemning Naqi on the assumption he did write the tweets, some have also voiced concern that Kuwaitis were so quick to attack each other along Sunni-Shi'ite lines.
"No Muslim ever accepts offense to the Prophet Mohammad ... yet reactions to such offenses must not be expressed chaotically and with a stereotypical vengeful state of mind," columnist Mohammad al-Sabti wrote in al-Rai newspaper.
"I do not understand why the entire Shi'ite community was targeted for a single error committed by one Shi'ite citizen," Sabti said.
Some Kuwait lawmakers agreed that troublemakers appear to have found an easy outlet to spark sectarian tensions.
"Some are provoking Sunnis to fight with Shi'ites and Shi'ites to fight with Sunnis. This is also happening on Twitter and Facebook now," said Hussain al-Qallaf, one of the seven Shi'ites in Kuwait's 50-member parliament.
Tensions between the communities are not new in Kuwait, which has a lively parliament and a generally more outspoken press than other states in the Gulf region.
In 2010, a Shi'ite cleric, accused of insulting Sunni Islam in comments made in London, was stripped of his citizenship. Earlier this year, Kuwait suspended privately-funded al-Dar newspaper for inciting sectarian strife.
But the Twitter cases have proven complicated because Kuwait lacks legislation covering the Internet. Prosecutors use the state's criminal code to charge Twitter users with slander or libel, as if they had made the comments in a public place.
The recent cases have prompted the government and lawmakers to push for new laws mirroring those governing Kuwait's media.
"The government is now in the process of establishing laws that will allow government entities to regulate the use of the different new media outlets such as Twitter in order to safeguard the cohesiveness of the population and society," Information Minister Sheikh Mohammad al-Mubarak Al-Sabah told Reuters on April 24.
The government says it is following the example of Western countries which have charged people for offensive comments made on Twitter over topics such as race or religion.
"Our political situation is not very strong here...People with power back one group or another, make attacks or promote people," said Islamist MP Mohammad al-Dallal, a specialist in legal matters related to the media.
"This debate has moved to many sectors and one of them is Twitter...it is not always being used as social media in Kuwait - not about friendship or personal matters but it is being used politically, to attack. This is a bad thing."
Dallal, who has 33,000 Twitter followers, said social media laws could be passed by June given strong political support.
For several commentators, unreasonable behavior, rather than simply freedom of speech, is at the heart of the Kuwaiti debate. They think some users are ill-mannered and insulting, and stirring trouble rather than engaging in serious debate.
"People can be so negligent, and it is not a matter of opinion, it is a matter of insulting others," said academic and human rights expert Ghanim al-Najjar, who has attracted nearly 24,000 followers in the four months since he joined Twitter.
He has used his online presence to object to introducing the death penalty for insulting Islam and to campaign on behalf of Kuwait's stateless. Najjar said sectarianism in Kuwait is not as bad as it appears.
"There is a balance. But the voices of sectarianism are much louder and compounded by events on the ground in Syria and Bahrain and the eastern province of Saudi, Iran."
Critics of the government's approach say people arrested for their online comments are being used as scapegoats. They argue that the authorities have managed to draw even more attention to sectarian issues through their actions.
"The government is trying to hit sectarian discourse hard because of fear is what is happening in the region, without knowing that what they are doing is creating another underground discourse," said Ibtihal al-Khatib, an academic and columnist at daily al-Jarida who has 12,900 followers on Twitter.
"Bottling it up would be the worst thing that you could do to a nation."
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)