This week it was reported an Indian expat has appeared in court in the UAE on defamation charges after a group of friends took offence to him posting a picture of a fox on their Facebook page.
The court heard the group found the image “insulting” as it implied “cunningness and deception”.
The incident is not the first such case to come before the courts. Last year, an Australian woman was fined and deported in Abu Dhabi for a cyber-crime offence after she posted a picture of a car parked across two disabled parking spaces outside her apartment.
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 and residents for inflammatory tweets and sought the means of monitoring mass-communication platforms.
In 2013, an article in the Interior Ministry’s newsletter “999”, warned of the increase in the spreading of “rumours” or “misleading information” via social platforms, while a whitepaper by the UAE's Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) on the use of Facebook was also released in 2014.
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.”
The TRA’s whitepaper also warns the UAE’s social media fans against defamatory comments, while additionally cautioning against the use of photos and videos unless consent has been given by their subjects.
"Users should be aware of the associated risk under UAE law of claims for defamation and breach of privacy involving the use of photographs and videos of other people without consent,” the TRA’s paper stated. “UAE law contains quite broad provisions relating to the protection of privacy and reputation so care needs to be taken when posting information about others."
Indeed reputation is at the centre of UAE defamation laws. When defining defamation, Kelly wrote that to bring a successful action the complainant has to show that “a false or defamatory statement was made, which was issued to a third party (either in writing or verbally) and that statement caused ‘harm’ to the complainant”.
In seeking clarification from Kelly of the phrase “false or defamatory”, ITP.net referred to a case last summer when an unnamed UAE official was filmed in the midst of a physical altercation with a motorist following a minor traffic incident. The film-maker was arrested and the official’s family initially filed a case against him for what was reported to be defamation. Do statements have to be false to be defamatory?
“The main issue in respect of defamation for a claimant to overcome is that a particular statement (or act) caused harm to the claimant,” Kelly said in an emailed statement to ITP.net.
“In the scenario [of the YouTube video] the fact that a video was uploaded caused the individuals in the video harm. Truth is not a defence to a defamation claim in the UAE. The harm caused by the person making the statement is sufficient for it to be defamatory. It does not have to be a false statement for it to be defamatory, and many defamatory statements are proven to be true, but if they caused the victim embarrassment (harm) then it may be enough to satisfy the courts that an act of defamation has occurred.”
A sobering statement for UAE residents who freely voice opinions on social media. In her authored document Kelly also cited a number of cases where such communications have led to online commenters falling foul of UAE laws. One such case involved a tweeter who accused a senior police officer of corruption and, in another case, four individuals were imprisoned for exchanging insults on Twitter.
Kelly’s brief tells of an increase in social media-related legal issues, including defamation, but also covering privacy, cyber liability and regulatory compliance. She also mentions that companies need to educate employees who engage in digital communication on their behalf.
“Companies should amend and update any Internet usage policies to specifically refer to social media, and provide training and guidance to their employees on what is appropriate and responsible commentary for the UAE,” she wrote.