Defamation Laws In UAE

Under the Federal Law No (3) of 1987,  defamation constitutes a criminal act and is subject to the penalties specified under Chapter VI  (Crimes Perpetrated Against Reputation: Libel, Abuse And Disclosure Of Secrets), Articles 371 up to 380.

For instance, if the defamation constitutes publication in any of the newspapers or other printed media, it shall be considered an aggravating circumstance and may be punished by imprisonment of two years and a fine (Article 372, UAE Penal Code);  if the slander  is transmitted by telephone, or face to face with the victim and in the presence of a third party, the punishment of detention for a period not exceeding six months, or a fine not exceeding five thousand dirhams, shall apply.  (Article 374, UAE Penal Code).

If the publication involves news, pictures or comments related to the secrets of the private or family life of persons even if they are true, the punishment shall be detention for a period not exceeding one year or by a fine not exceeding ten thousand dirhams, or both (Article 378, UAE Penal Code);  finally, you may also  be punished by detention for a period of at least three months or by a fine of at least five thousand dirhams, if you divulge the contents of a letter, cable or telephone call to a person other than to whom it is addressed, and without the latter’s consent, where such an act causes damage.

In an entry posted on July 31, 2011, the Gulf News reported that “misuse of instant messaging” by means of mobile phone devices or similar gadgets, can be punishable by law. “Misuse” may cover activities like spreading malicious rumors or false and unverified news reports which tend to cause confusion among the public and may lead to destabilization of the country’s security. “Spreading such rumors is considered a crime that is punishable.” – according to Mohammad Al Ganem, General Manager of UAE’s Telecommunications Regulation Authority.  This is in reference to Articles 198, 374, and 378 of the UAE Penal Code.

In the United Arab Emirates, limitation periods are not expressed in one comprehensive statute, but they are contained in various different laws. Although limitation periods may vary in the United Arab Emirates, much depends on the construction of the statute which governs that particular limitation period itself.   Since defamation constitutes a crime, the action will prescribe in 20 years, according to the UAE Criminal Procedure, Article 20.

Defamation in the UAE can be enforced in two ways — through the criminal justice system or via the civil courts. In a criminal case, the police or a prosecutor brings the charges and the accused faces either a fine or prison sentence as punishment.   In a civil case, the plaintiff files a lawsuit against the defendant who can be liable for damages, but no jail time.

The UAE relies heavily upon criminal courts to regulate written and spoken speech. By way of comparison, US authorities rely upon civil lawsuits to control defamatory speech. In the U.S., results are just as effective and can be a powerful motivator towards making sure reputations are not injured.

In the UAE, the effects of filing criminal libel suits are different.  As what Dr. Duffy expressed, “x x x    a speaker with suspicions about a figure like [Bernie] Madoff must remain silent or face the possibility of a trip to jail for criminal libel. And even proving that Madoff is a scoundrel wouldn’t necessarily exonerate the speaker.   In the UAE, a prosecutor or claimant could still win by proving that the speech caused harm to reputation.”  In many countries, truth is an ultimate defense against an accusation of defamation. However,  as reported by lawyers of the UAE and as further expressed by Dr. Duffy, victims of alleged defamation can win a libel case by simply proving the allegation injured their reputation — the truth of the statement is not necessarily an ultimate defense.

On January 20 2009, the UAE’s legislature, the Federal National Council, passed the draft law, which was drawn up by the National Media Council. According to the draft law, journalists are not subject to criminal penalties (such as imprisonment).  Further, the draft law decreases the number of infractions for which media organizations can be liable. It also instructs government institutions to facilitate information flow to the media and to respond to their requests for information.   More significantly, the draft law provides journalists freedom from coercion to reveal sources, reflecting the government’s commitment to the journalistic right to protect sources.

Hopes for reform, however, were dashed on November 12, 2012 when President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan declared that the government would imprison anyone who maligns or caricatures the country’s rulers or state institutions online. Many feel the move signifies the end of free speech in the country.