Qatar’s cybercrime law moves forward despite criticism

free speech online

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An amended draft of Qatar’s new cybercrime law still contains provisions that would punish anyone who publishes information online that “exceeds any principles of social values” of the country.

According to QNA, the Cabinet took “necessary measures” on the draft law yesterday after taking into account Advisory Council recommendations. Both government bodies approved the law last month, but have now disclosed more details about its tenets.

The state news agency reports:

The draft law stipulates punishments for anyone who unlawfully access through the Internet or any IT means websites or IT systems of state organs, institutions, authorities or entities or their affiliates or establishes or runs a website through the Internet or an IT device to disseminate incorrect news to endanger the safety of the state, or public order or internal or external security.

It also stipulates punishment for anyone who exceeds any principles of social values and publishes news or pictures or audio-video recordings related to the sanctity of the private and family life of individuals, even if they are correct, via libel or slander through the Internet or an IT device.

Qatar has not specified what such “punishments” would entail, but in other Gulf countries such as the UAE, this has meant the jailing and fining of people who post tweets, YouTube videos and other content with which the government took issue.

Hacker attacks

Qatar’s draft legislation is mainly aimed at safeguarding the country’s technological infrastructure and strengthening cyber security within Qatar’s key industries, at a time when hacker attacks are increasing.

Just yesterday, an IT security expert who spoke a summit in Doha said that Qatar, the UAE and other countries in the region remain among the top 10 most targeted sites in the world for cyber criminals, Gulf Times reports.

Previously, security experts have cited Qatar’s rising international profile as one reason for the growing number of attacks.

To bolster security, the draft law requires “vital sectors” to create a framework to manage information inside their companies, as well as allocating a budget to pay for the new initiatives.

These sectors may include power grids, oil and gas production, financial transactions, healthcare and government operations.

Criticism

The parts of the draft legislation that deal with information posted online have sparked criticism at home and abroad for threatening free speech.

Last month, Reporters Without Borders dropped Qatar a few notches in their annual Press Freedom Index. The French media advocacy organization told Doha News that Qatar fell from 110th to 113th because it had made no strides toward greater media freedom.

A representative added that Qatar’s ranking was weighed down by concerns about the potential limitation of online expression proposed in the new draft cybercrime law.

So far, no copy of the draft legislation has been made publicly available, but pieces of the law were first published by QNA last May.

At the time, the Doha Centre for Media Freedom’s then-director Jan Keulen expressed concern about abuse of this law and told Doha News that cybercrime “is a separate issue from freedom of expression on the internet. This freedom should be guaranteed.”

In addition to affecting what residents post online, the law could also have a “chilling effect” on local media, analysts have said.

Speaking to Doha News last month, Matt J. Duffy, an expert on journalism and media laws in the Middle East, said the legislation’s overly broad provisions could be used by the government to limit criticism and dissent.

This concern prompted the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists to send a letter last year to then-Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, stating:

“Countries throughout the Middle East and beyond look to Qatar as a media leader in recognition of your constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression and freedom of press, and in light of Al-Jazeera’s ambitious and expanding global reach…

Qatar should affirm its position as a global media leader by ensuring that the cybercrime bill does not impinge on a free and open Internet, which is a necessary condition for the exercise of press freedom and freedom of expression.”

After Cabinet approval, the legislation would still require the Emir’s signature before being passed into law.

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