The state news agency reported a major change to the Cybercrime Law of 2006 that details which online acts are illegal.
The revision, published in full in Gulf News, criminalizes anyone who uses a electronic means to “deride or to damage the reputation or the stature of the state or any of its institutions, its 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 also offers penalties “of imprisonment on any person publishing any information, news, caricatures or any other kind of pictures that would pose threats to the security of the state and to its highest interests or violate its public order.”
These restrictions, of course, are incredibly broad and will surely lead to even more self-censorship in the United Arab Emirates. Any legitimate criticism of the government could conceivably violate “public order.” Better to just stay quiet while on Twitter, Facebook or YouTube lest one step across this nebulous line set up by the new law.
Other countries do pass laws to ensure public order — however, the ones with strong protections for free expression strive to ensure that the laws don’t prohibit legitimate criticism and discussion. In the U.S., for instance, the line is generally drawn at speech which incites “imminent lawless action.” This new provisions of the cybercrime law are far more restrictive and nebulous.
UPDATE (Nov. 13): Abu Dhabi’s The National newspaper editorial writers managed to squeeze in a good paragraph about the revision: “But specifics on what types of speech or actions would be considered damaging are not spelled out. Clarity here would be welcome.”
UPDATE: Alexander McNabb has a good post on the revision.
CORRECTION (Nov. 14): An earlier version of this post criticized the WAM news agency for not including an English version of the full decree. The news agency did post a full version which they oddly split into three parts. Looking at the first part alone made it look as though much of the decree had been left untranslated.