August 14, 2011

EMIRATES: UAE curbs on social media evoke outcry

DOHA, Qatar / The Peninsula / News / August 13, 2011

Media reports of the UAE enforcing a law that prescribes three to 10 years imprisonment for people spreading rumours through social media have come in as a shock for many people in the region.

The reports have triggered a heated debate on Qatari social networking sites with people arguing if such a law was needed at all and whether Qatar should follow suit.

However, most commentators, though strongly opposed to rumour-mongering, said they favoured free expression through the Internet.

The UAE has banned the use of the Internet, Twitter and Facebook and technological innovations such as BlackBerry to use such media for spreading rumors and propaganda.

The director of organised crime-combating unit of Dubai Police, Abdul Rahim Shafei, told Arabian Business that the law-enforcement agencies will deal strictly with people who use the above media forums or technologies to spread baseless rumours and hurl insults at the members of the royal family or senior bureaucrats.

The move assumes immense significance as the UAE has put on trial five bloggers who called for democratic reforms in the Emirates last April.

As the online population has been increasing in the GCC, the UAE becomes the first member-state to implement a law to curb what analysts describe is Internet activism

China has been among the first countries in the world to have smelled the threat of Internet activism since the Web population in the country had crossed the 400 million-mark, and enforced an anti-rumour mongering law.

Media reports about the UAE law have, though, evoked mixed reactions in Qatar with many commentators writing on social networking sites that rumour-mongering must be dealt with strictly. But there were others who said that although spreading rumors should be discouraged, it is important to have free expression on social media.

Another commentator said that Qatar already has two articles in its penal code that deal with crimes like spreading false information and rumours.

But analysts this newspaper spoke to on the issue say the problem is to first define what a rumour is and then enact relevant laws to curb their spread.

“There already are laws in place whereby one defaming an individual can be taken to task,” said the analyst.

He said he wondered why only developing countries, and not advanced nations, have laws to deal with rumour-mongering.

“So the problem of rumour-mongering seems to be systemic,” he said not wanting his name in print.

Sometimes people at lower levels in the government itself spread rumours about some decisions that are proposed to be taken to get a feedback from the public, but when the feedback is negative the proposed decision is shelved.

“So the earlier talk of the proposal becomes rumour-mongering, said another analyst.

“If we have an anti-rumour mongering law, how are we going to deal with such situations,” asked the analyst.

Companies also resort to such tactics. Take the example of cold drink prices. It was announced many years ago that the prices would be raised to QR1.5 a can.

There was a lot of hue and cry in the public and the decision was withdrawn, but it was implemented later. “What do you call such a tactic? Isn’t it rumour-mongering,” asked the analyst.

“The source of such rumours would also need to be zeroed in on and brought to book if we have a law that prescribes strict punishment for rumour-mongering,” asked the analyst.

There are many other examples of such ‘sponsored’ rumour-mongering, so how a law can take care of such offences.

Actually, the receiver of false information should be equally held responsible since the onus of using his judgment to assess the authenticity of information lies with him, the analyst said.

Source: The Peninsula
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