With the advent of social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Twitter, and Facebook, certain individuals have taken it upon themselves to be citizen journalists by broadcasting content they deem news-worthy to friends and family, without verifying the source.
However, unlike traditional media sources such as television, radio, and newspapers that operate according to local government laws of a country, numerous countries are facing challenges in formulating policies to regulate social media use.
This has undoubtedly increased tension in several countries between leaders and their citizens due to the prevalent dissemination of unverified news, half-truths and malicious rumours.
The ambiguity in the wording of media laws in some countries has created loopholes which people have exploited to convert free speech into foul speech, with citizens freely casting aspersion on their leaders.
In the UK for example, a Member of Parliament (MP) named Diane Abbott complained bitterly of the online abuse she had been constantly receiving regarding her race and gender; and she described it as "so debilitating, so corrosive, and so upsetting".
Furthermore, UK’s Constitution Minister, Chloe Smith opined that such online intimidation was dissuading potential candidates from standing for election.
Similarly, president Donald Trump's complains about the constant online abuse he and his staff receive shows an increasingly acrimonious political environment, where his supporters will doubt the credibility of affiliated media companies and vice versa for opposition supporters.
Consequently, people will no longer value constructive criticism but rely on insults and slander as a means of expressing their views. However, such uncouth online behaviour cannot occur in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
After perusing the contents of the UAE’s Federal Law No. 5 of 2012 on Combatting Cybercrimes, I took note of Article 29.
It states that "…Shall be punished by temporary imprisonment and a fine not in excess of one million dirhams whoever publishes information, news, statements or rumours on a website or any computer network or information technology means with intent to make sarcasm, damage the reputation, prestige or stature of the State or any of its institutions or its president, vice-president, any of the rulers of the Emirates, their crown princes, or the deputy rulers of the Emirates, State Flag, the national peace, its logo, national anthem or any of its symbols".
As you can see, the wording in this Article is clear, concise, and straightforward; leaving no room for ambiguity. This Article was a proactive measure to ensure that nothing like "fake news" emerges in the UAE, where people can use social media accounts to fabricate stories or peddle half-truths about their leaders. As a result, there is a lot of decorum online within the UAE.
Consequently, such constitutional provisions ensure that UAE residents receive authentic news emanating from leaders and state institutions, since media companies are wary of the penalties of publishing false news online.
As a result, when news about government institutions and leaders are published on websites like The National, Khaleej Times, and Gulf News, people do not bother themselves verifying the content because the law protects UAE residents from receiving false news.
Unfortunately, several countries seem to be fumbling and taking reactive measures to tackle frequent online abuse of their leaders, since they failed to enact similar proactive media laws like the UAE did in 2012.
Thus, some countries are now debating on whether to blame social media companies or social media users for false or unverified news published online. This debate will never end unless governments amend the wording of their media laws to make them more concise, leaving less room for misinterpretation.
Therefore, foreign governments need to emulate the wording of UAE’s Article 29 to prevent their countries from being threatened with anarchy. It is not about copying the content of this Article verbatim, but having an in-depth review of their media laws to detect ambiguities in sections of their Acts.
The UAE’s somewhat strict media laws do not mean their leaders are against the use of social media. Au contraire! There are numerous initiatives by UAE authorities to engage residents on social media to promote progress, tolerance, and positivity.
Eminent people such as His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, frequently uses social media to communicate with the populace.
Additionally, the UAE government has various social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, in an effort to enhance communication and public participation between authorities and residents.
In addition to the UAE’s media regulations aimed at curbing false news and slander, The UAE Social Media White Papers is another document which is meant to help social media users in the UAE maintain decorum online.
Inhabitants of every country should never have the audacity to verbally abuse their leaders online, or else their sense of morality will lessen as people feel they have gained more authority than those governing them.
As Lord Acton, a British historian of the late 19th Century once said, "power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely".
Ultimately, governments of other countries will benefit by reviewing their media laws so that individuals can be held accountable for disparaging and demeaning online comments about leaders.