DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – The United Arab Emirates set stricter Internet monitoring and enforcement codes Tuesday that include giving authorities wider leeway to crack down on Web activists for offences such as mocking the country’s rulers or calling for demonstrations.
The measures are another sign of tougher cyber-policing efforts by Western-backed leaders across the Gulf amid growing concerns over perceived political or security threats since the Arab Spring uprisings.
The Web clampdowns, however, have brought outcry from rights groups and media freedom advocates that claim Gulf authorities are increasingly muzzling free expression in the name of preserving the powers of the ruling clans from Kuwait to Oman.
The new UAE codes — posted on the official news agency WAM — also raise questions about potential new red lines for the country’s huge expatriate work force in which parodies and pointed criticism of the UAE are common fodder on websites. It’s unclear, too, whether the codes could put a chill on media coverage of sensitive issues such as the rising profile of Islamist factions.
The UAE has not faced any street protests during the Arab Spring upheavals, but authorities have stepped up arrests and pressure on groups including an Islamist organization, Al Islah, that official claim seeks to undermine the country’s ruling system. In September, Dubai’s police chief, Lt. Gen. Dahi Khalfan Tamim, warned of an “international plot” to overthrow the Gulf governments by Islamists inspired by the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Many of the codes in UAE’s updated Internet law focus on issues such as online fraud, privacy protection and efforts to combat prostitution.
But a major section spells out sweeping limits and possible prison terms for any posts “to deride or to damage the reputation or the stature of the state or any of its institutions,” including the rulers and high officials across the UAE — a federation of seven semiautonomous emirates.
It also outlaws “information, news, caricatures or any other kind of pictures” that authorities believe could threaten security or “public order.” These include Web posts calling for public protests or “disobeying the laws and regulations of the state.”
The decree, issued by the UAE President Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, came just hours after the UAE was elected to a three-year seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council.
In an apparent response to the worldwide chaos touched off in September over a video clip denigrating the Prophet Muhammad, the new codes said jail terms are possible for any Internet posts that “display contempt” for Islam or any other faith.
Across the Gulf, other authorities have stepped up prosecutions against online activists and others. Earlier this month, a Bahraini man was sentenced to six months in prison on charges of insulting the Gulf nation’s king in Twitter posts. In September, a journalist-blogger in Oman received a one-year prison term for alleged anti-government writings.