Penal Code amendments a setback for freedom of expression
(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.”