UAE has witnessed several high-profile defamation cases making headlines in recent years. Most of them were related to social media. According to the UAE law, derogatory and defamatory comments posted on social media is considered equivalent to any other publication such as newspaper, books, or magazines. However, the penalties can be much severe. Due to social media’s informal nature, writers do not realize the kind of impact their comments make. The risk and damages caused by social media are higher than the traditional means, given its instant and broad reach.
What is defamation in UAE?
The act of targeting and making a false accusation against a person or organization with the intention to damage the reputation is called defamation. Defamation is a complex law to explain and argue in the court, due to the intangible nature of reputation.
Defamation can be categorized into two types, Slander and Libel.
Slander: The defamatory statements conveyed verbally are called slander.
Slanders are untrue statements told to others as though they were true, often due to hatred or anger. These are some of the examples of slander: telling an unproven story about a co-worker stealing something from the office, claiming that a person has sexually transmitted diseases, telling false stories about a person to his spouse with the intention to harm their relationship, etc.
Libel: The defamatory statements spread via print media and are in written form are called libel. Libel is not limited to writing. Defamation caused due to signboards, cartoons, photographs, even the display of statues can be constituted to libel.
Defamation Law in UAE
In UAE, defamation comes under criminal law, not under civil law like most countries. A criminal complaint can be filed for defamation against an individual or organization under Articles 371 to 380 of the UAE Federal Law No. 3 of 1987. The law states that any individual or organization must refrain from making any statement that could have a detrimental effect on the person or organization to whom the statement refers. For an allegation of defamation, all 3 elements of defamation offence must be fulfilled:
- A false or defamatory statement was made.
- The statement was issued in front of a third party (witness), either verbally or in writing.
- The statement has caused harm to any extent.
In the absence of any of the above elements, the merits of a complaint can be undermined.
The Court of Cassation (highest court) has held that defamatory statements are made with the intention to expose someone to the risk of punishment, humiliation, or public contempt. It was later added that the mere criticism might be regarded as defamatory if it goes beyond “normal limits” or affects the defamed person’s honour.
In case the perpetrators are found guilty under the Penal Code, they can expect a jail term for up to two years or a fine of up to AED 20,000. However, if the statement is made against a public officer, it can increase the severity of the punishment. Similarly, when the insult is targeted to a person’s family honour, it will be considered aggravating circumstances and amount to severe punishments.
Defamatory statements related to religious beliefs or show contempt for any religion is listed under separate crime. As mentioned, defamation comes under criminal law; thus, there is no civil action for defamation in UAE law. However, the complainant can file for civil damages and seek compensation.
Social media defamation in UAE
In recent times, social media has become increasingly prominent in the context of defamation law. Social media is becoming a major platform to vent our frustration. Most of the time, these reactions are spontaneous in nature and are a result of anger. No matter how trivial it may sound or look, it can have a disastrous effect.
Under Article 20 of the Cyber Crime Law, it is an offence:
- to insult others or put others in situations that may subject them to punishment,
- utilizing computer networks, electronic medium,s or social media to contempt others.
If found guilty under Article 20, one can expect a jail term and a fine between AED 25,000 and AED 500,000. In case you are a foreigner, you can expect potential deportation.
Under Article 39 of the Cyber Crime law, it is prohibited for any website owner or group admin to store, conceal, provide, and distribute any illegal content. Even being aware of it and fail to take proper actions against it can get group admins in trouble and they can be held liable.
UAE has one of the most stringent laws against defamation and cybercrime. Several expatriates have been deported because of their derogatory Islamophobic comments or posts on social media platforms. UAE has a zero-tolerance policy and a very strict code of conduct regarding defamation via electronic media.
So, let’s be clear “No one has the right to insult you in the UAE, not even on social media.”
Some points you must know about using social media in the UAE:
- Defamation in the UAE is a criminal offence and if it occurs on a social media platform or any other electronic medium, it is tried under Cybercrime law. This can invite more severe punishment.
- Individuals must understand the responsibility and risks associated with the usage of social media in the UAE. It will help if you use your due diligence before making any defamatory or derogatory comments against religion, public officers, or one’s race or family.
- All companies operating in the UAE should amend and update their internet usage policies. Rules and obligations related to social media must be specifically mentioned and outlined. All the employees must be provided with proper training and guidance about the appropriate and responsible commentary in the UAE.
- Administrators and owners of websites, social media groups, instant messaging groups must ensure all the measures for effective monitoring. Moreover, they must take necessary action immediately after such content is discovered.
Defamation by electronic means
In addition to social media, any defamatory remarks made through other electronic media such as websites, forums, WhatsApp, SMS, or emails can also be tried under Article 20 of Cybercrime.
Suppose an individual utilizes the office space, network, or device to make defamatory statements and is charged with a criminal complaint. In that case, even the employer can be involved in the legal process. It doesn’t matter whether the issue was raised due to the employment of the accused or if the employer’s name or brand involved in it. As a sponsor, the employer, too, will have to bear certain consequences of the crime.
During the investigation, Police may require access to office computers. There is a possibility that the device may even get seized if it was used for committing the crime. Depending on the severity of the crime, Cybercrime law also has the provision of permanent or temporary deletion of information and closure of the offending website at the Court’s discretion.
Verbal Abuse Law in UAE
According to the UAE law using derogatory language or any form of verbal abuse, irrespective of a person’s nationality, is a criminal offence. The ‘F’ word that you may use with ease in your home country can get you in legal trouble in the UAE. Article 373 of the Penal Code No. 3 of 1987 states that:
- Punishment by detention for a period not exceeding one year or a fine not exceeding AED 10,000 shall be imposed upon anyone who, by any means, disrespects the honour or the modesty of someone else.
- Punishment by detention for a period not exceeding two years and a fine not exceeding AED 20,000 or either of these two shall be imposed if a public official or one who is in charge of public service is abused during, because of, or on the occasion of performing his duty or public service, if the abuse affects the honour or injures the reputation of families, or it is noticed that the abuse is intended to achieve an illegal purpose.
- If the abuse is in a published format such as newspaper or print media, it shall be considered an aggravated case.
According to Article 374 of the same Penal Code states that:
- Detention for a period not exceeding six months or a fine not exceeding AED 5,000 shall apply if the slander or abuse is transmitted by telephone or directly to the victim in the presence of a third party.
- Punishment by fine not exceeding AED 5,000 shall be imposed if the slander or abuse occurs when the victim is alone. It can be face to face or sent through a message of any form.
- It is considered an aggravated case when the slander or abuse is performed against a public official or one who is in charge of a public service during, because of, or on the occasion of performing the duty or public service. If it affects the honour or injuries the reputation of families or if it is noticed that it achieves an illicit purpose, then also it shall be considered an aggravated case.
How to file a defamation case in UAE?
All the offences related to defamation and insulting law in UAE are taken extremely seriously. The law has laid out the legal course available to an individual whose reputation is maligned by another person. Any person who intends to file a complaint must start at the police level and then move for public prosecution. Any defamation victim has the right to complain to the police station within three months after the victim became aware of the crime.
How to lodge a complaint against the accused?
- You can go to the Dubai Police online portal and record a complaint, or you can use the mobile app.
- You may also visit the nearest police station or call 999.
- In case an employee feels memos and letters addressed to him/her are defamatory, they can approach the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation and file the complaint against the employer.
Upon investigation, if your complaint has merit to prosecute the offender, the police may open a case against the offender. The case will then be referred to the public prosecutor for charges as under the applicable Penal Code and Defamation law of the UAE. The prosecutor must question the accused in the first 48 hours of the filing of the complaint.
After the judgment is passed in favour of victims in criminal court, they can claim civil compensation for both material and moral damages.
Although UAE law requires all the necessary elements for a case to qualify in court, in practice, these cases are usually tried based on who files the case first. In one of the cases, the defendant apologized to the victim in order to resolve the matter, but the police took that apology as a confession to the guilt and charged the defendant.
Convictions are relatively easier in defamation cases; that is why lawyers advise filing such cases to support claims in the case of family or civil cases. Though reliable statistics are not available; however, in our experience, we have witnessed the majority of family court cases in Dubai involved verbal abuse.
We have been privy to all kinds of defamation cases and have successfully handled criminal and civil cases. In most cases, it depends on judges evaluating the seriousness of defamation accusations depending on the situation.