The UAE has introduced a new law on internet crime that stipulates prison sentences for anyone found criticising the Gulf state’s rulers or government institutions online.
In a presidential decree announced on official news agency WAM on Monday evening, authorities said the new legislation would target web sites and internet users that “deride or... damage the reputation or the stature of the state or any of its institutions”.
These institutions include the president, the vice president, any of the rulers of the emirates, their crown princes, the deputy rulers, the national flag, the national anthem, the emblem of the state or any of its symbols, the decree said.
The legislation expands on a previous decree on cyber crimes announced by UAE President HH Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan in 2006.
As well as covering material deemed defamatory of UAE authorities, the new law also threatens jail terms to those who use the internet to call for unlicensed demonstrations in the country, as well as a much broader range of offences including online soliciting of prostitution and trafficking of firearms.
The internet and social networks played a key role in the Arab Spring revolts that toppled governments in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen, where it was used to co-ordinate mass rallies and document alleged human rights abuses.
The UAE has so far been spared much of the unrest that has swept across the region over the last 20 months, although authorities have in recent months detained more than 50 suspected Islamists who they accuse of trying to whip up discontent.
Internet access in the wealthy Gulf state is already censored by the UAE’s telecommunications regulator, with material deemed pornographic or anti-Islamic routinely blocked.