Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 February 2020

Spreading coronavirus rumours a criminal offence, lawyers warn

Offenders could potentially face up to three years in prison

UAE residents who post fake stories about the coronavirus on social media risk criminal charges, experts said on Friday.

Lawyers in the country warned legislation expressly prohibited spreading rumours that could affect security and “incite public panic”.

In the past few days, a number of inaccurate posts on Twitter regarding the outbreak have caused alarm in the country.

One tweet even suggested three people in Dubai had died from the infection, an allegation that is entirely false.

“It’s unacceptable and people should know better than to circulate news they are not 100 per cent certain of,” said Ahmed Ibrahim Saif, a former head of Dubai’s criminal court.

Actions such as circulating hoax news about serious matters...are penalised

Dr Hassan Elhais

He warned that posting fake information not only risked frightening UAE residents but also affected tourists and business travellers considering visiting the country.

More than 560 people are confirmed to have died in China after contracting the coronavirus.

Health experts fear more fatalities will follow, with authorities around the world on high alert in an effort to contain its spread.

Last week, a message received by a parent on a WhatsApp group in Sharjah asked recipients to bring in surgical masks for schoolchildren.

But officials later said no such instruction had been issued, stating that the wearing of masks was unnecessarily alarming.

“I received the message and the next morning I asked a teacher about it when I dropped my kids off to school,” said Munawar Hamza, a mother of two.

But the school responded saying surgical masks were “banned” to prevent frightening young pupils.

“Please note, surgical masks are banned in school,” the school said in an email.

“They only serve to heighten tension and hysteria – especially among our younger students.”

Under existing UAE law, anyone found guilty of spreading false rumours could face between one month and three years in prison.

Dr Hassan Elhais, a legal consultant with Al Rowaad Advocates and columnist for The National, said authorities had every right to take the spreading of false rumours seriously.

“Actions such as circulating hoax news about serious matters that can contribute to public fear and panic are penalised,” he said.

Updated: February 8, 2020 02:56 PM

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