With reporting from Riham Sheble and Reem Alamri
Qatar passed its controversial cybercrime law last month to comply with an agreement among Gulf states to criminalize online insults of the region’s royal families, this country’s former justice minister has said.
Despite its specific intended purpose, Najeeb al-Nuaimi – now a criminal lawyer – told Doha News that he feels the new law is “dangerous” and leaves residents at the mercy of a prosecutor’s interpretations of loosely defined provisions in the legislation.
Last month, Qatar’s Emir approved new penalties for online offenses such as hacking into government networks and possessing child pornography, among other crimes.
However, the cybercrime law also outlaws the spreading of “false news” as well as digital material that violates the country’s “social values” or “general order.”
Along with producing such content, it’s also now illegal to incite, aid and facilitate the publication of offensive material. It’s unclear how those terms will be applied to social media content, which is commonly retweeted and shared.
Amnesty International called the broadly worded law “a major setback for freedom of expression in Qatar,” while other critics have suggested the new law could violate provisions of the country’s constitution that protect civil liberties.
The aim of the law has, up until now, largely been a mystery, with residents questioning whether casual online comments about life in Qatar could now be considered a criminal offense.
However, al-Nuaimi said that the envisioned application of the law is likely narrower in scope:
“A year or two ago, a GCC security agreement was signed. This agreement stipulates that all GCC states need to regulate online expression and to criminalize certain expression on social media as well as private blogs … The security agreement clearly states that anyone who writes or spreads online insults of rulers, heirs to the thrones or their families in any of the GCC states should be punished by law.”
Al-Nuaimi said he learned of the contents of the security pact from members of Kuwait’s parliament, who reviewed and approved a comparable cybercrime law in that country.
He said Qatar is the last GCC country to implement the regional agreement and pass its cybercrime law, which the former minister called similar to the one in place in the UAE.
That country has imprisoned activists who published details on Twitter about a trial and criticizing some of the proceedings under a law prohibiting the spread of “any incorrect, inaccurate, or misleading information which may damage the interests of the state or injures its reputation, prestige, or stature.”
While the cybercrime law was crafted with protecting the reputation of the Gulf’s ruling families, al-Nuaimi said the intention behind it is of little comfort to ordinary internet users:
“The law as it is now is very dangerous to freedom of expression, which is a basic right that needs protection. I have fears and concerns as to how this law will be applied and the restrictive effect it will have on online expression.”
Al-Nuaimi said the vagueness about what constitutes “false news” or a violation of Qatar’s social values is problematic.
Adding to his fears is the prospect of a Qatar resident being prosecuted for viewing content produced in another country. He said:
“Say a friend of mine in another GCC state sent me pictures or videos of a private occasion or a family gathering – a wedding, for instance. Naturally, there will be people celebrating, women dancing, perhaps with (their) headscarves taken off. If this material goes online, this friend will punished under the law and so will I because the prosecutor can consider this a violation of social values.”
While international advocacy organizations have largely condemned the new law, some local residents said they support its provisions – providing they are applied appropriately.
Mariam Gammaz, an administrative coordinator at Qatar University, called the new law “excellent” and “long overdue.”
“The things we find online that are offensive to both the country and individuals require this law for protection,” she told Doha News. “As a mother, I am happy and I feel much safer knowing this law exists. I won’t be worried about my children using the internet.”
However, Gammaz added she is concerned that a resident could unwillingly break the law by, for example, sharing a website or article without knowing its full contents.
Dana, a student at Qatar University who is studying English, also said she believes that parts of the law are worthwhile:
“There’s a difference between criticism and slander. The (former) never harms anyone, and is appreciated and respected. (However), the latter is not and will never be considered ‘free speech’ because its sole purpose is to attack, which is not acceptable … (Additionally), anyone who publishes anything that touches our national security, (without) a doubt, they should be prosecuted.”
A sad peace of legislation for all those who believe in freedom of speech and equality before the law. The foundation of a modern civilised society is that nobody is above the law. I would never insult a Royal Family, but transparency and honesty demand that their actions are open to review.
Saudi has a huge problem with social media as it weakens the religious dictatorship that is in place and gives their oppressed people, especially women an outlet. The genie is out of the bottle now and neither Saudi or Qatar can put it back. They will try with these laws but unless they take the same route as the other religious dictatorship in the region, Iran and just block your citizens access to the Internet it won’t work. The Iranians are even developing their own internet so scared are they of their people learning the truth from outside Iran.
Saudia is just delaying the inevitable. They never learn from their mistakes.
“I won’t be worried about my child using the internet.” If this law is all it took to make you feel that the internet is now only contains cuddly teddy bears, you live a very naive existence and/or you trust the local government way too much for your own good.
“(Criticism) never harms anyone, and is appreciated and respected.” Uhhhhm, it’s not appreciated in Qatar, where your public reputation is even more important than your actions. Why do you think we never actually hear any names from all these “name and shame” laws? Why don’t police pull over lawbreakers and issue tickets on the side of the road? One could go on and on with examples to prove that people here (especially local government) are so paranoid about criticism, public or private.
Apparently this person is not aware of the wealth of VPNs and similar tools that allow people unfettered access to anything online. Sounds like she’s perfectly willing to allow her children to be babysat by the computer instead of being a mother.
Criticism is absolutely not appreciated in Qatar. Case and point, the Qatari poet jailed for allegedly insulting the royal family.
Talk about touchy. The royals of the GCC shouldn’t be worried about insults; those insults should make the ones doing them look bad rather than the other way around.
It strikes me that they’re concerned (especially the Saudis) about people saying all-too-apt things about them that are harsh. It seems obvious to anyone who looks that Sheikh Issa of the al Nayhans in Abu Dhabi is a criminal and a human rights violator, but should such a comment get me arrested?
It probably would get you arrested on his turf, I would hope not in the remaining GCC.
But what if a royal actually is corrupt but hasn’t been held to account? The United States would have been a far worse off place if newspapers couldn’t have pointed out that Nixon was a criminal, despite his vehement denials. I don’t see the GCC getting any better by shielding royals from criticism.
Does Social Media users are immune from ethics & morals ? Legislation must be there to have self check & self accountability- present media influence desires to have a strong check & pre-authentication of any word being mentioned
The whole idea that an insult is a criminal act is ridiculous. Insults should reflect on the person issuing it when the person insulted is a big enough person to rise above it. Punishing it implies that there is a particularly thin skin on behalf of people in high places. Furthermore, criticism can easily be twisted into insult by the one being criticized when it is quite legitimate criticism, simply because answering to the public is just too much trouble. Any government that restricts its people in their right to speak freely or punishes them for doing so is violating a basic human right.