The decision of a growing number of Arab region states to sever diplomatic ties with Qatar will affect trade, travel and security alliances. It will also affect free speech.
The list of detractors — who allege that the peninsular Gulf country is supporting “extremism” — currently includes Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen, Maldives, Mauritania and Mauritius.
On the heels of their announcement, government officials in the UAE and Saudi Arabia issued warnings that any citizen who expresses sympathy or support for Qatar via social media could face jail time or exorbitant fines.
Al Arabiya reported that Emirati General Prosecutor Hamad Saif Al-Shamsi warned that such expressions would violate the UAE’s cybercrime law and could warrant a maximum of 15 years in prison or at least 500,000 dirhams (USD $136,000) in fines.
Although they may sound extreme, these punishments fall within the bounds of the UAE’s cybercrime law, which prescribes imprisonment and fines for those who publish online news, cartoons and pictures that “may endanger the national security and the higher interests of the State or afflicts its public order” (article 28), and content deemed “damaging” to the “the reputation, prestige or stature of the State…” (article 29).
SaudiNews agency tweeted that offenders in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia could face up to five years’ jail time or fines of up to three million Saudi riyals. This would fall under Article 6 of the country’s 2007 cybercrime law which bans “material impinging on public order,” a local lawyer told the Saudi newspaper Okaz. According to the same newspaper, those expressing support for Qatar online could face up to ten years in jail under Article 7 of the cybercrime law for “promoting terrorism”.
On June 8, Bahrain followed in the footsteps of the UAE and Saudi governments by threatening users showing any sympathy with Qatar, or expressing objection to the severance of diplomatic ties, with legal action. Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior says users could face up to five years in jail and a fine under the Penal Code.
Exiled Emirati activist and blogger Iyad el-Baghdadi, who is a leading voice on human rights and free speech issues in the Gulf region, tweeted:
Arab regimes all over the Arab world are using this latest crisis as another excuse to go after independent voices.
— İyad el-Baghdadi | إياد البغدادي (@iyad_elbaghdadi) June 6, 2017
This was originally published on GlobalVoices.