New cybercrime law could have serious consequences for press freedom in Qatar

New York, September 17, 2014–The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on the Qatari government to abolish parts of a restrictive cybercrime law that passed this week, despite assurances from its prime minister last year that the legislation would not restrict freedom of expression, which is protected under the Qatari constitution.

The broad language of the Anti-Cybercrime Law could be used to restrict press freedom and impose prison sentences on journalists inside the country, according to news reports. Under Article 8, the law threatens to punish anyone found guilty of violating social values by publishing “news, pictures, audio or video recordings related to the personal or family life of individuals, even if true,” with up to one year in prison and a QR100,000 ($28,000) fine, according to local reports. The same punishment would apply to those found guilty of libel online.

According to a local news report, the law also states that those found “[jeopardizing] the safety of the state, its general order, and its local or international peace” by spreading or publishing “false news through any means” could face a one-year prison sentence and QR250,000 fine. Article 6 of the law threatens fines of up to QR500,000 and prison terms of up to three years for spreading false news with the aim of destabilizing national security, reports stated.

“This law is ostensibly to stop cybercrime but at least two articles will severely restrict freedom of expression, which is not a crime,” said Sherif Mansour, CPJ Middle East and North Africa Coordinator. “The Qatari authorities should repeal all articles in this law which curb press freedom. Failure to do so will chill public discourse between the Qatari government and the citizens it serves.”

In May 2013, the Committee to Protect Journalists urged Qatar to reconsider the cybercrime bill after it was approved by the cabinet. In October 2013, CPJ received a response via fax from Prime Minister Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al-Thani, maintaining that the bill did not include limitations on freedom of the press, that the Qatari constitution protected freedom of expression, and that the law was not in violation of international accords.

The Gulf Center for Human Rights, an independent NGO, has also raised concerns about the law, which it described as “a real and serious threat to freedom of expression and opinion and belief on the Internet and through social media.” The group also raised concerns that its “vague language” could be used to “silence human rights defenders.”

The cybercrime law, which was ratified on Monday, will come into effect immediately, according to the Doha Center for Media Freedom.

Qatar has not yet ratified or signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but article 48 of its constitution guarantees freedom of the press. As a member of the United Nations General Assembly, Qatar is obligated to grant journalists the right to “study, discuss, form and hold opinions on the observance, both in law and in practice, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms and, through these and other appropriate means, to draw public attention to those matters.”