A female resident in Qatar has been prosecuted for sending insults via the mobile app WhatsApp, in the first case under the country’s controversial cybercrime law. The law prosecutes and targets crimes across digital platforms, from online fraud to social media.
The woman was sentenced in absentia late last month to six months in jail and ordered to pay a fine of $5,500 (QR20,000) for sending several messages to a man who arranged her accommodation. Allegedly upset because her landlord evicted her, she responded with insults, including a homophobic slur, according to news website Doha News.
According to the court’s verdict, as reported by Qatari daily newspaper Al Raya, the woman had also threatened to “have the man deported.”
The case is the first since the cybercrime law was formally introduced over a year ago. Critics of the law fear the new legislation may limit freedom of expression and speech, especially those of online publications.
The law could prosecute anyone who shares or publishes online content deemed harmful to the country’s “social values” or “general order.”
The legislation also stipulates fines and jail time for various offenses including hacking into government networks, online fraud and sharing child pornography.
The law, which was published in its entirety by the Qatari Al Raya newspaper, includes an article that specifically raises fears among journalists regarding its potential impact on freedom of the press and publication as well as commentary on social media.
The article reads: “Anyone who spreads “false news” online that could harm the state or its “general order” could now face up to three years in jail or a fine of up to QR500,000 [$137,309]”. It has also outlawed publishing anything that violates and reveals information related to someone’s personal life.
Until the law came into effect, content published online did not fall under any specific legislation. Law No. 8 of 1979 “On the Press and Publication,” otherwise known as the Press Law, still governs the Qatari media 35 years since it was first introduced.
Freedom of the press?
Shabina Khatri is the co-founder and Executive Editor of the online news publication Doha News. Established in 2009 as just a Twitter feed covering Qatar, Doha News is now a fully-fledged website covering breaking news, politics, business, culture and life in and around Qatar.
For the past few years, the publication has been able to cover some of the biggest stories in the small Arab Gulf state, including the tragic deaths of 19 people in a 2012 mall fire, 13 of them children. At the time, most of the national newspapers were silent on the incident as the story broke but Khatri, along with her team, were on the story as they vetted and confirmed tweets and information from citizen journalists. The national Qatar TV station and QBS Radio ran their usual broadcasts throughout the incident.
Khatri told Al Arabiya News that while the law may seem damning to press freedoms, it has been used in ‘limited fashion’ by the government.
“This makes sense, given reports that the legislation was drafted with the specific purpose of preventing insults to royal families in the region, who worried such talk could delegitimize their rule.”
But while the reasoning behind passing of the law may still be debated, the online news editor told Al Arabiya that the ambiguity of it all still has a “dangerously chilling effect.”
“The overly broad provisions still have a dangerously chilling effect on free speech, and remain on the books as a tool for prosecutors to silence anyone who says something that could violate the country’s ‘social values’ or ‘general order,’” she said.
In recent times, Qatar has been attempting to forge a freer press with the establishment of a Journalism and Communications school at Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q) as well as the Doha Centre for Media Freedom (DCMF) that advocates for freedom of the press around the region.
A Qatari female senior student at NU-Q, said that cultural restraints may have played a factor in passing of the law. “Reputation is important in the Qatari culture and the law is intended in protecting people’s name at the cost of the truth… Qatar is following other Gulf states footsteps in limiting freedom of speech,” she said.
Abdulrahman al-Jufairi, a prominent Qatari lawyer, said that criticism of law is currently unwarranted as there was no existing law to combat misuse of technology and the Internet, therefore necessitating the passing of the new legislation.
Article 5 of the law prescribes up to “three years of prison and a fine of up to QR500,000 ($137,309) for anyone who creates or manages a website for a terrorist organization or spreads its ideology through the Internet or any other media that assists in communication among heads and/or members of terror organizations.”
“Unfortunately, we are also seeing terrorist organizations using the Internet for un-peaceful purposes like reaching out to young people in the name of Jihad. We are increasingly seeing this in our country and in our region,” Jufairi said.