Five Emirati citizens were sentenced with up to three years in prison for publicly insulting U.A.E. rulers, a crime under the U.A.E. penal code. The defendants ran an online forum in which they voiced antigovernment sentiments. The U.A.E. has not experienced the unrest that other countries in the region did during the “Arab Spring” earlier this year. Human rights groups and civil activists believe the case is intended to serve as a warning to those citizens who engage in political expression. Some other citizens in the U.A.E. believe the five defendants deserve more time in jail, claiming that U.A.E. citizens enjoy many perks as a result of the generosity of its rulers and therefore, that what the defendants did was wrong. It is clear that freedom of expression is not encouraged in the U.A.E., particularly freedom to express one’s unhappiness with rulers. Freedom of expression is an important right, but how can a nation in which some citizens believe that citizens should not be permitted freedom of expression begin to change?
I can see both sides of this argument. On one side it seems clear that when you break the law you need to be punished; however, there is also a need to be free to speak your mind. I think the issue in this instance is whether the U.A.E. penal code is fair. Citizens need to be free to voice their opinions in order for a country and a government to grow. If the government does not recognize the things they are doing wrong they will never get the support of their citizens. Although, in this case, some do feel that the government is doing a good job, it is always important to listen to the critiques of those who are not so supportive so the government can seek to make changes that may make everyone happy. I do not think it is fair to have a law banning citizens from freely expressing how they feel about what their government is doing wrong.
A short time ago, I wrote a blog post on a similar topic involving the internet censorship of websites, blogs, and other internet sources that criticized the king of Thailand. To view the blog in it’s entirely, see http://pilr.blogs.law.pace.edu/2011/10/06/internet-censorship-of-critial-remarks-on-the-king-of-thailand/.
In this article, I discussed the problems with internet censorship and the various ways in which it is offensive to the notions of free expression and freedom of speech. However, in Thailand the punishments were nowhere near as severe as being imprisoned for three years for such an offense. Such a punishment is outrageous and a clear violation of human rights such as the rights mentioned above.
As evidenced by this blog article and my previous one, the sanctioning of those who criticize the government over the internet is something that is not unfamiliar in the international community. People need to give serious thought to this issue and decide what should be done about such situations or before long this could become a global trend with staggering human rights consequences.