Freedom of expression and censorship
According to the 2017 “Freedom in the World” report, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is not a free country. The publisher of this annual report, Freedom House, is an independent watchdog organisation reporting on the freedom status of countries around the world, in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Among the political rights and civil liberties that determine this status is the right to freedom of expression and belief. Although Article 30 of the UAE’s constitution guarantees the freedom to hold opinions and express them, the reality differs greatly. Following the uprisings during the ‘Arab Spring’ in 2010 and 2011, the UAE government issued new laws, supposedly to prosecute cybercrimes and terrorism. However, in reality the government misuses these laws to arbitrarily detain anyone expressing political dissent, demanding their rights or calling for democratic reform. Even posting peaceful, harmless comments online can lead to imprisonment, making the detainees vulnerable to torture and other ill-treatment.
Severely restrictive laws allow the UAE government to repress any unwanted opinions. Both the status of the press and the internet are categorised as “not free” by Freedom House. Since the 1980s, the Publication and Publishing Law has been regulating all aspects of the media. Domestic media is tightly controlled and influenced by UAE authorities. Newspapers have to be approved by the National Media Council before being published, otherwise they will banned. Many news websites are blocked in the UAE, such as the Middle East Eye, The New Arab, and al-Araby. The law strictly regulates the sale and distribution of publications, who is allowed to own a newspaper or printing press, who is allowed to work as an editor or writer, and what kind of requirements that person must need in order to perform the work.
The dire situation of the UAE’s press is mirrored by the UAE ranking 119 out of 180 countries in the “World Press Freedom Index.” Within the National Media Council, there is a department for censorship that has power to censor any paragraph they deem unsuitable to the public or to prohibit the item entirely. Additionally, there is a separate committee just for film censorship, and permission from this committee must be granted before a film can be shown in the cinema. Going to the cinema is only permitted from the age of 16, restricting the access of the public to media even further. The council also has officials empowered to enter cinemas or publishing houses to confiscate everything “offensive.”
A whole chapter of the Publications and Publishing Law lists material prohibited from being published. This list includes everything critical to the government, its rulers and its allies, anything that is seen as an “instigation” against Islam or the system of ruling, opinions that “violate” public discipline and order, as well as articles that “defame” Arab culture. Violating any of these articles is followed by a prison sentence or fine. To avoid these severe punishments, many journalists practise self-censorship and government statements are often published without criticism or comment.
Following the wave of citizen protests that swept across the Arab world in 2010 and 2011, authorities in the UAE further tightened restrictions on freedom of speech and association, and peaceful assembly. In 2012, a new cybercrime law was issued. Under the pretext of persecuting online crimes, the government now has the opportunity to charge people for expressing their opinions and political dissent online, especially on Twitter, Facebook or personal blogs.
The use of text messages and communication apps like WhatsApp is also monitored by the government, making it dangerous to share opinions even in private. The severe punishments vary from 6 months to 10 years imprisonment and fines from 100,000 dirhams (£20,000) to 3,000,000 dirhams (£630,000), while the clauses of the law are so vaguely defined that almost any statement not being in line with the government’s views could be prosecuted.
The government prosecutes comments on human rights violations in the UAE extremely harshly. In November 2015, Moza al-Abdouli was charged with insulting the UAE and its leaders. The charges relate to tweets from 2013, where she mourned the loss of her father, who died in Syria. At the time, she was only 15 years old. Not only she was arrested but also her three siblings, one of whom was arrested only for making a speech about the detention of his siblings.
Since 2014, the situation has further deteriorated. An anti-terrorism law was enacted but, similar to the structure of the cybercrime law, the vague definitions of what actually constitutes a terrorist offence enables the government to label any dissent as terrorism. Committing such an offence results mostly in the highest punishments, either capital punishment or life imprisonment. Even if a person has not committed any “terrorist offence”, they can still be declared as posing a terrorist threat and therefore be prohibited from travel, controlled by the government, and prohibited from communicating with specific persons.
The latest measure of the government to repress dissenting opinions is the law “On Combating Discrimination and Hatred.” It is used in combination with the cybercrime law and the anti-terrorism law to strengthen their legitimisation. Again, it allows the government to punish anyone speaking out against the repressive situation in the UAE by accusing them of committing an act of hate speech.
In Article 19 of the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” freedom of opinion and expression is declared as one of the fundamental human rights. Public protest in the UAE is virtually impossible, so exercising this right is almost a hopeless endeavour. And yet, some people, at the risk of their own lives and the lives of their families, speak out against the flagrant human rights violations in their country. However, dozens of these human rights and free speech activists are held in the UAE’s jails, some of them forcibly disappeared and held in undisclosed locations, where many are subjected to torture and other inhumane treatment.
The Case of Ahmed Mansoor
Ahmed Mansoor is one of the most prominent human rights defenders in the UAE, having won the Martin Ennals award for his online activities on social media and human rights activism. He worked with human rights organisations like Human Rights Watch, and also collaborated with UN human rights mechanisms. In 2011, Mansoor was detained for the first time for peacefully calling for democratic reforms in the UAE. Authorities never returned his passport, preventing him from travelling abroad. Since then, Mansoor has been continuously harassed for his work on the promotion of human rights.
The harassment did not only include physical assault and death threats but also government surveillance and spyware attacks. According to Citizen Lab, who were given a suspicious text sent to Mansoor to check if it was a spyware attack, the UAE government tried to monitor his activities by hacking into his phone. In March 2017, Mansoor was again arrested for publishing “false information, rumors and lies” about the UAE, based on the cybercrime law. This clearly violates his right to freedom of expression, especially since it is not known which of his social media activities were the cause of his arrest. Shortly after his enforced disappearance, the UN urged the UAE to release him immediately but the government has not accepted this demand and his whereabouts are still unknown. Being held incommunicado places him at high risk of being tortured and means he has no access to a lawyer.
● More information on Moza al-Abdouli’s case: http://icfuae.org.uk/news/moza-alabdouli-tried-tweet
● More information on Ahmed Mansoor’s case: http://icfuae.org.uk/news/141-days-have-passed-arbitrary-arrest-human-rights-defender-ahmed-mansoor-emirati-authorities