By Sylvia Westall
KUWAIT (Reuters) - Kuwait plans to pass laws this year to regulate the use of social networking sites such as Twitter, the information minister said on Tuesday, in the wake of cases of alleged blasphemy and sectarianism that have prompted protests.
Kuwaiti lawmakers also voted in favor of a legal amendment earlier this month which could make insulting God and the Prophet Mohammad punishable by death.
Twitter is extremely popular in the Gulf state of 3 million and many public figures use the messaging site to debate politics, share gossip and advertise events. Unlike print media, television and books, the state does not have the ability to censor electronic media and lacks specific laws for prosecution.
"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 said.
While the Kuwaiti press enjoys greater freedom than media outlets in some other Gulf states, it is under government surveillance and there are certain "red lines" local journalists know they must not cross, including direct criticism of Kuwait's ruler, regional heads of state, religious figures and religions.
The government also clamps down on comments deemed to incite sectarian tension.
Kuwait has so far used its criminal code to bring charges against individuals for slander or libel.
A court sentenced a Sunni Muslim writer to seven years in jail earlier this month and ordered that he pay nearly $18,000 in compensation after ruling that he had insulted Kuwait's Shi'ite Muslim minority on Twitter.
Police arrested a Kuwaiti Shi'ite last month, charging him with insulting the Prophet Mohammad on Twitter. He denied this, saying his account had been hacked, according to his lawyer.
Both cases triggered small street protests.
Kuwaiti MPs from across the political spectrum have voiced concern about sectarian tensions. The unease reflects a wider regional trend, especially in Bahrain where the Sunni monarchy has cracked down on protesters who are mainly Shi'ites.
Sheikh Mohammad said laws regulating social media needed to be passed as soon as possible.
"I have been asking the parliamentarians to give this priority," he said on the sidelines of a parliament session, adding he hoped the measures would be implemented this year.
Islamist Member of Parliament Mohammad al-Dallal, who specializes in legal matters related to the media, said he thought the legislation could be passed as early as June given strong support among fellow deputies.
"Twitter is an open area ... everyone can speak. But 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," he said.
(Editing by Janet Lawrence)