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UAE toughens Internet clampdown


The United Arab Emirates set stricter Internet monitoring and enforcement codes Tuesday which include giving authorities wider leeway to crack down on web activists for offenses such as mocking the country's rulers or calling for demonstrations.

The new law, which replaces the previous one issued in 2006, is another sign of tougher cyber-policing efforts by Western-backed leaders across the Gulf amid growing concerns over perceived political or security threats since the beginning of uprisings that swept across the Middle East almost two years ago.

The web clampdowns, however, have provoked an outcry from rights groups and media freedom advocates that say Gulf authorities are increasingly muzzling free expression for the sake of maintaining the ruling clans from Kuwait to Oman.

The new UAE codes – posted on the official news agency WAM – also raise questions about potential new red lines for the country's huge expatriate workforce, for whom parodies and pointed criticism of the UAE are common fodder on websites.

It is also unclear whether the codes could put a chill on media coverage of sensitive issues such as the rising profile of Islamist factions.

Unlike most of its neighbors, the UAE has not faced any street protests, but authorities have stepped up arrests and pressure on groups including an Islamist organization, al-Islah, that officials claim seeks to undermine the country's system of government.

According to the Bloomberg news agency, more than 60 people with ties to Islah were arrested, while a European Union assembly alleged that some of the detainees may have been tortured and denied legal representation.

Several of those arrested had been active on online social media networks.

In September, Dubai's police chief, Lieutenant General Dahi Khalfan Tamim, warned of an "international plot" to overthrow the Gulf governments by Islamists inspired by the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Many of the codes in UAE's updated Internet law focus on issues such as online fraud, privacy protection and efforts to combat prostitution.

But a major section spells out sweeping limits and possible prison terms for any posts aiming at state institutions, rulers and high officials across the UAE – a federation of seven semi-autonomous emirates.

According to UAE’s English-language daily The National, anyone convicted of "creating or running websites that deride or damage the reputation or stature of the country and its rulers will face a minimum jail sentence of three years."

The law also outlaws "information, news, caricatures or any other kind of pictures" that authorities believe could threaten security or "public order." These include web posts calling for public protests or "disobeying the laws and regulations of the state."

The decree, issued by UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, came just hours after the UAE was elected to a three-year seat on the UN Human Rights Council.

A European Union resolution last month condemned "harassment," "restrictions on freedom of expression" and "illegal imprisonment" suffered by pro-democracy activists in the UAE, and demanded the "unconditional release of prisoners of conscience," which it says number 64.

The Gulf state dismissed the accusations as unfounded.

In an apparent response to the worldwide chaos touched off in September over a video clip denigrating the Prophet Mohammad, the new codes said jail terms are possible for any Internet posts that "display contempt" for Islam or any other faith.

Across the Gulf, other authorities have stepped up prosecutions against online activists and others.

Earlier this month, a Bahraini man was sentenced to six months in prison on charges of insulting the Gulf nation's king in Twitter posts. In September, a journalist-blogger in Oman received a one-year prison term for alleged anti-government writings.

(AP, Al-Akhbar, AFP)

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