Defamation and social media in the United Arab Emirates: Balancing freedom of expression and legal consequences.

diffamation et réseaux sociaux aux Emirats

The rapid expansion of social media platforms has fundamentally changed how people interact and disseminate information globally. Nonetheless, this technological progress has given rise to specific challenges, especially concerning defamation and its repercussions on individuals and businesses in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This article delves into the intricate connection between social media and defamation in the UAE, emphasizing the legal framework and the hurdles faced by authorities in safeguarding reputations while upholding the principles of freedom of expression.

Understanding Defamation in the United Arab Emirates

Defamation involves making false statements about an individual or entity that harm their reputation. The UAE takes defamation very seriously and holds individuals accountable for their actions online. Social media enables anyone to become a potential publisher, but this power comes with significant responsibilities. A defamatory statement posted on social media can reach a wide audience almost instantly, potentially causing irreversible damage to a person or business.

The new Penal Code stipulates two main defamation offenses in Articles 425 and 426. According to Article 425, it is prohibited to publicly allege a fact against a person, thereby exposing the victim to penalties or contempt. As for Article 426, it pertains to the act of publicly insulting someone in a manner that could harm the honor or dignity of the victim.

Legal framework in the UAE regarding defamation on social media

On January 2, 2022, significant changes regarding defamation and cybercrimes were introduced into the legislation of the United Arab Emirates:

  1. Federal Decree-Law No. 34 of 2021 on Combating Rumors and Cybercrimes (Cybercrime Law)
  2. Federal Decree-Law No. 31/2021 on the issuance of the Law on Crimes and Penalties (Penal Code)

Under UAE law, publishing defamatory comments on social media is a criminal offense, just like publishing in newspapers, books, and magazines. However, penalties can be even more severe, and the easily accessible and informal nature of social media can catch authors off guard. One could argue that the risk of harm via social media is higher than that of traditional media, given the immediate and widely uncontrollable dissemination of opinions published on social media platforms, which can be shared and go viral within minutes to an audience far beyond what the original author intended.

The new Penal Code includes a separate crime for invasion of privacy and family life, involving recording or disseminating private conversations or photos without consent. The Cybercrime Law also includes this offense and punishes the dissemination of information with the intent to harm. Offenders risk a fine of up to 500,000 AED and/or imprisonment for at least one year.

In the UAE, there is no specific civil remedy for defamation, but plaintiffs can seek damages in case of proven civil wrongdoing.

In the UAE, any published comment (whether anonymous or not) can lead to criminal prosecution for defamation.

Among recent well-publicized cases, one involves a woman sentenced for insulting her uncle via WhatsApp, and another resulted in the imprisonment of four individuals after exchanging insults on Twitter.

Defamation through digital means

Defamatory statements made on social media or any other digital means, such as WhatsApp, TikTok, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, websites, SMS, and email, can constitute an offense under the new cybercrime law. Article 43 of this law prohibits insulting others or attributing to them an incident that could expose them to penalties or contempt, using a computer network or any information technology means, and carries criminal penalties of fines ranging from 250,000 to 500,000 AED and/or imprisonment.

The new cybercrime law also introduced a new offense for spreading rumors or false information through digital means, if it incites unfavorable public opinion towards a state authority or if committed during a sensitive period (e.g., during an epidemic, emergency situation, or disaster).

Recording or photographing someone without their consent remains prohibited, as well as copying and distributing these recordings or photos. This is a crime even if the recording or photo is not sent to anyone else and regardless of the context. The offense is punishable by imprisonment or a fine. There is a potential defense if the recording or photo was taken for the purpose of reporting a crime to the police.

The cybercrime law also prohibits any owner or operator of a website or information network from facilitating the commission of a crime that is subject to legal sanctions. This means that Internet service providers, as well as owners and administrators of websites and social media platforms that store or provide illegal content, may commit a crime punishable by imprisonment and/or a fine, especially if they are aware of the illegal content. As a result, website and group administrators can be held responsible for inappropriate posts by their members and should implement measures to mitigate this risk.

Defamation on social media presents a significant challenge for the United Arab Emirates, as they strive to maintain a delicate balance between protecting reputations and preserving freedom of expression. The country’s legal framework provides a solid foundation for addressing defamation cases, but the borderless nature of the internet and anonymous accounts remain significant obstacles. By raising public awareness, collaborating with social media platforms, strengthening cybercrime units, and encouraging the use of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, the United Arab Emirates can take steps to effectively manage defamation on social media and foster a safe online environment for its citizens.