Qatar: New cybercrimes law endangers freedom of expression

A controversial new cybercrimes law that criminalizes the spreading of “false news” on the internet poses a serious threat to freedom of expression in Qatar, said Amnesty International. 

Under the new law, the authorities may ban websites that they consider threatening to the “safety” of the country and punish anyone who posts or shares online content that “undermines” Qatar’s “social values” or “general order”, though the law fails to define the meaning of these terms. 

“The new cybercrimes law is a major setback for freedom of expression in Qatar,” said Said Boumedouha, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme. 

“It contains broad and vaguely-worded provisions that fly in the face of international standards. They effectively grant the government extensive powers to punish anyone who posts or shares content that officials consider harmful to Qatar’s “social values” or national interests. 

“There is a real danger that legitimate, peaceful expression could be seriously undermined by this new law by facilitating arbitrary crackdown on peaceful dissent.”   

The law addresses hacking, forgery, intellectual property rights and other acts that are recognizably criminal under international law but also requires telecommunications providers to block access to websites or supply evidence or records at the request of the authorities. 

Freedom of expression in Qatar is strictly controlled and the local press routinely exercizes self-censorship.   

In one case that demonstrates the extent of the authorities grasp on freedom of expression, well-known Qatari poet Mohammed Rashid al-Ajami is serving a 15-year prison sentence for writing and reciting a poem that was considered critical of the ruling family. It did not incite hatred, sectarianism or violence. Amnesty International considers him a prisoner of conscience and has repeatedly called for his immediate and unconditional release. 

“Mohammed al-Ajami’s case is a perfect example of how the Qatari authorities have flouted the rules on freedom of expression at their whim in the past,” said Said Boumedouha. 

“Despite Qatar’s attempts to portray itself of as a progressive country committed to the respect of international human rights standards, we are seeing the authorities rolling back freedoms instead of taking steps to ensure freedom of expression is protected.” 

In recent years the government has also sought to tighten its control over freedom of expression through a new draft media law. If approved, the new media law would require all publications to be approved by a government-appointed “competent authority” empowered to remove content or prevent printing. 

The right to freedom of expression in Qatar is also restricted by the 2004 Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Convention for the Suppression of Terrorism, which GCC countries adopted in November 2012. 

Based on flawed legislation relating to expression and association in each of the six GCC states, one of its 20 provisions is a vaguely worded commitment to suppress “interference in the domestic affairs” of other GCC countries. This could be used to criminalize criticism of the actions of other GCC states or public figures. Other provisions provide for GCC states’ sharing of citizens’ and residents’ personal data without this being subject to judicial challenge.