criminal law

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February 08, 2020

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Coronavirus panic - spreading false rumours could land hoaxers in jail

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".

Over recent 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 which 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.

He warned that posting fake information not only risked frightening UAE residents but also impacted 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 school children.

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.

However 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 amongst 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.

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