The Middle East has often found itself ill at ease with social media. Following the Arab Spring, where platforms such as Twitter were credited with the ouster of a number of long-standing regional leaders, countries such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Oman have imprisoned citizens for inflammatory tweets and sought the means of monitoring mass-communication platforms.
In the UAE, two recent incidents have thrust social media and its use into the spotlight. The first was an article in the Interior Ministry’s newsletter “999”, which warned of the increase in the spreading of “rumours” or “misleading information” via social platforms.
The second was the release of a whitepaper by the UAE's Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) on the use of Facebook.
Both government messages reminded the Gulf nation’s diverse population that “rumour-spreading” on social media was a crime and carried stiff penalties, but neither gave clear guidelines on what constituted a “rumour”.
Lt Colonel Awadh Saleh Al Kindi, editor-in-chief of 999, said: “There have been cases in the past where residents caught using social media to spread malicious rumours faced a jail term or fine, or both. The UAE authorities will seriously deal with false news spread via social media harming UAE society.”
What is clear is that legal principles governing social media rumours are no different from those covering defamation.
In September 2013, Rebecca Kelly, partner at legal firm Clyde & Co, authored a document titled, “Defamation and social media in the UAE”. In the document, which Clyde & Co shared with ITP.net, Kelly wrote: “Defamation in the UAE is a criminal offence. [It] includes both oral and published statements, and will include any statement posted to a website which causes harm to the person the statement is about.”
Penalties, however, can be more severe for Web-based rumours than for printed or verbal slander.
“If found guilty [of defamation] individuals can face up to two years in prison or a fine of up to AED20,000 ($5,445), or up to AED600,000 if the offender used the Internet to publish a defamatory statement,” Kelly wrote.
The reason for the distinction when it comes to penalties may lie in the reach of social media. As 999’s Al Kindi said, “While in the past spreading of information happened through word of mouth, the massive power and influence of social media has changed the communication landscape and a misuse of social media can virtually spread mass fear [at the] click of a button.”
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