© 2019 Anke Waelischmiller/AP Images
(Beirut) – Qatar has amended its penal code to restrict further the already-narrow space for free expression by setting criminal penalties for spreading “fake news” online, Human Rights Watch said today.
The amendment, introduced as a new article under the “Crimes against Internal State Security” section of the penal code and published alongside other amendments in the official gazette on January 19, 2020, imposes up to five years in prison for spreading rumors or false news with ill-intent. The new text does not define who determines what is a rumor or fake news, how to make such a determination, or what standards are to be used in doing so. It also fails to require that the information shared causes real harm to a legitimate interest.
“Qatar loves to advertise how it’s supposedly more open than its neighbors, but this law uses the same playbook as other Gulf states to muzzle free expression,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Qatar should be removing legal provisions that restrict free expression, not adding more vague provisions like ‘fake news’ that chill critical public debate on important issues.”
Article 136 (bis) sets criminal penalties for “whoever broadcasts or publishes or republishes rumors or statements or false or malicious news or sensational propaganda, inside or outside the state, whenever it is intended to harm national interests or incite public opinion or disturb the social or public order of the state.” The article says that violators “shall be punished with a maximum of five years in prison and a 100,000 Qatari riyals, or one of the two penalties.” The penalty is doubled if the crime is committed in wartime.
Qatar’s penal code also criminalizes criticizing the emir; insulting Qatar’s flag; defaming religion, including blasphemy; and inciting “to overthrow the regime.” Qatar’s 2014 cybercrimes law already criminalizes spreading “false news” on the internet and provides for a maximum of three years in prison for anyone convicted of posting online content that “violates social values or principles,” or “insults or slanders others.”
New amendments to the penal code were announced in a statement by the Emiri court on January 14, 2020. The statement did not include the text. On January 17, a major local newspaper, Al Raya, published the full text of the amendments ahead of their publication in the official gazette, a move not uncommon in Qatar. However, it included a significantly more restrictive phrasing of article 136 (bis), which also would have criminalized any discussion of state affairs that could incite public opinion, damage national interests, or destroy trust in the state’s institutions or those in charge of them.
Qataris on Twitter and other social media platforms expressed strong opposition to the proposed law, promptly leading the newspaper to take down the article. It issued a statement two days later apologizing for “the controversy raised over amendments to the penal code” and claiming it received the text from an unofficial source and published it without verifying it with the competent authorities.
While the final phrasing of the amendment is less restrictive than the version published in Al Raya, Human Rights Watch considers the new law a significant setback for freedom of expression in Qatar and a violation of Qatar’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which it recently ratified to international praise. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which interprets the covenant, has stated that any law restricting freedom of speech must be drafted narrowly, carefully, and sufficiently clearly that those subject to the law can understand what is prohibited, and any punishment must be proportionate. It also says that states should not prohibit criticism of state institutions, and should ensure that all public figures are subject to criticism and public debate.
UN human rights experts recommend that government regulation of online content should “not impose disproportionate sanctions, whether heavy fines or imprisonment… given their significant chilling effect on freedom of expression.”
Qatar’s constitution also guarantees freedom of expression and opinion. Qatar is also bound to respect the right to free expression under article 32 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, to which it is a party.
“Qatar’s commitment to human rights needs to be about more than just getting international applause,” Page said. “The authorities need to actually apply the treaties they join and reform their laws to better protect free speech and other basic rights.”