Qatar’s new draft cybercrime law raises concerns over freedom of online expression

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Qatar’s Cabinet has just approved a new draft cybercrime law that, if passed, could have a chilling effect on residents’ freedom of expression on the internet.

According to the state news agency QNA, the law would punish anyone who infiltrates government websites without permission. But it also contains a provision about information shared online:

The law also punishes anyone who infringes on the social principles or values or otherwise publishes news, photos, audio or visual recordings related to the sanctity of the private and familial life of persons, even if they were true, or infringes on others by libel or slander via the Internet or other information technology means.

The inclusion of such a clause “raises many questions,” Jan Keulen, the director the Doha Centre for Media Freedom, told Doha News.

Namely, why is a law protecting residents and the government against cyber crime discussing issues that were originally supposed to be covered in the media law?

He continued:

“(Cybercrime) is a separate issue from freedom of expression on the internet. This freedom should be guaranteed,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to mix the two things. I think those very general provisions and stipulations could be abused.”

Earlier this year, when government officials said a new cybercrime law was in the works, they alluded to legislation that would focus on protecting key systems in the country, including power grids, oil and gas production, financial transactions, healthcare and government operations. 

Gulf precedent

But by including provisions regulating information that is posted on the internet, Qatar appears to be taking a page from the UAE.

Last year, the emirate passed a sweeping new cybercrime law that stated anyone found guilty of criticizing the country’s rulers or institutions online could be jailed for up to three years and/or be subject to deportation.

At the time, legal consultants said the law was broad enough that anyone caught saying anything deemed offensive to the state on social media in the UAE could be penalized.

In recent months, that law has been used to jail residents for posting tweets.

“They don’t want to go toward the Dubai situation,” Keulen said, adding that he did not think a law governing online expression was realistic.

“I think any attempt to regulate content on the internet is bound to fail (due to) the worldwide nature of the internet,” he said. He added that DCMF would like to see the full text of the draft law.

“Being a watchdog for media freedom in Qatar, we would like very much to be consulted on this issue,” he said.

UPDATE | May 31, 2013

The US-based Committee to Project Journalists has written a letter to Qatar’s Prime Minister asking him to revise the draft law after consulting with “media, legal, and human rights representatives to ensure that its provisions do not infringe on freedom of expression.”

It continues:

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.

Thoughts?

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