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UAE Arrests Activist For 'False News' Tweets

An Emirati activist arrested and charged with "spreading false news" on Twitter is yet another sign of dwindling free speech in the United Arab Emirates, writes Matt Duffy.
An illustration picture shows the log-on icon for the Website Twitter on an Ipad in Bordeaux, Southwestern France, January 30, 2013.  REUTERS/Regis Duvignau (FRANCE - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY BUSINESS) - RTR3D6NN

In a troubling sign of an even greater crackdown on free speech, the United Arab Emirates security forces have arrested an activist and charged him with “spreading false news” via Twitter.

The charge appears to be the first brought under the new cybercrime law updated in November of last year. The revision of the law was widely criticized for its exasperatingly broad language prohibiting a wide array of speech, including sarcasm directed toward the nation's leaders and even disparaging cartoons.

Abdulla Al-Hadidi was arrested on March 22 on the false news charge as well as a dubious accusation of attacking a security guard outside the courthouse where his father is being tried along with 93 others accused of sedition.

International media and foreign observers have been barred from attending the trial, meaning that only local media — which practice self-censorship in order to avoid upsetting authorities — are providing an account of proceedings. Al Hadidi had been tweeting updates from the trial, offering his own perspective on the proceedings. He also appeared on CNN earlier this month, where he denied the government’s central argument that all of those on trial are working in concert with the Muslim Brotherhood, a group officially banned in the UAE.

The Emirates Center for Human Rights also reports that 41 relatives of the accused will soon be arrested on similar accusations of spreading “false news.” They, too, have been disseminating accounts of the trial through Twitter.

The exact details of Al Hadidi’s charge are unclear because the UAE government rarely makes public statements regarding the actions of its security forces.  Emiratis are often detained for days or months before any official charge is publicly announced.

The cybercrime law contains two provisions that relate to “false news.” Article 29 prohibits the publication of “rumors” through any digital means. A “rumor” would seem to imply a falsehood, but the statute offers no explicit definition. Article 38 makes it a crime to spread through electronic means “any incorrect, inaccurate or misleading information which may damage the interests of the state or injures its reputation, prestige or stature.”

The latter directive gives the government wide latitude in making arrests over the dissemination of most anything that they deem hurts the reputation of the state. It’s hard to imagine a case that any state prosecutor could not win under the purview of this overly broad statute. A wife describing on Twitter the disheveled appearance of her husband behind the courtroom glass could conceivably be convicted of making an “inaccurate or misleading” statement if a prosecutor disagreed with the description.

The charge of spreading false information has been a favorite among Gulf countries since the Arab Spring uprisings began in 2011. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait have all made arrests on charges of spreading false news.

While such a law sounds like a noble ideal — who, after all, should be allowed to spread false news? — in practice, this type of legislation is routinely used to suppress information governments find embarrassing. Discerning the “truth” can be a subjective exercise.

Most independent international courts have long thrown out laws banning dissemination of false information, insisting the freedom of expression must include the right to make false statements. They also argue that these laws — traditionally aimed at news reporters — ignore a practical aspect of journalism. Reporters must attribute their information to sources, and no reporters can vouch for the veracity of all their sources.

Instead, creating an environment where as much information as possible is shared — a marketplace of ideas — leads to a situation where the best obtainable version of the truth will come out. With this latest arrest (and more looming), the UAE will be even further from a marketplace of ideas.

Public speech (from an identifiable account) critical of any government policy has become almost nonexistent on social media platforms in the UAE. But Twitter is seeing a surge of anonymous Arabic accounts as more Emiratis go underground to express their views without worry of arrest or harassment. One activist told Al Monitor that there is little worry that the government can identify people using these anonymous accounts. Apparently one popular subversive Twitter account has been hacked by state security and is now being used as its platform. One of the Emiratis behind that account was arrested and held for months without a formal charge, according to the activist.

One negative aspect to this upsurge in anonymous speech is that people tend to lose their civility. Arguments become more extreme under the veil of anonymity. But, this environment is exactly what the security forces and leadership have created with their heavy-handed approach.

Indeed, the actions taken by the government show a leadership that has absolutely missed a key lesson of the Arab Spring. All over the Arab world, populations have shown they are fed up with receiving censored information from their heavily regulated media outlets. Again and again, these residents have turned toward social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to get information from an unfiltered source.

Advances in technology have changed the rules of old-school Arab governance, where state-controlled media deliver carefully constructed messages to a captive audience. Rather than accepting and adapting to this new reality, the UAE appears intent on figuring out how to control the new media as well.

Perhaps this method will work in the short-term, but it’s a strategy that fails to accept that the old paradigms of communication are never coming back.

Matt J. Duffy teaches journalism and international media law at Georgia State University in Atlanta where he is a fellow with the Center for International Media Education. You can follow him on Twitter: @mattjduffy

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