‘As dangerous as the virus’: Middle East cracks down on COVID-19 rumor mongers

‘As dangerous as the virus’: Middle East cracks down on COVID-19 rumor mongers
Countries in the Middle East have also imposed curfew to restrict people's movement during the outbreak. (File/AFP)
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Updated 30 March 2020

‘As dangerous as the virus’: Middle East cracks down on COVID-19 rumor mongers

‘As dangerous as the virus’: Middle East cracks down on COVID-19 rumor mongers
  • Fines and jail sentences await people who spread fake news about coronavirus in the region
  • The World Health Organisation (WHO) has called the spread of fake news about the coronavirus an “infodemic”

DUBAI: Governments in the Middle East have said they have zero tolerance for rumor mongers amid the coronavirus pandemic, warning people of prosecution and hefty fines if they engage in what they have described as “dangerous” behavior.
Egypt and Oman on Saturday joined countries in the region who have explicitly said they were going to punish those who spread fake news and rumors about COVID-19.
Imprisonment of up to five years and a fine of around $1,200 could be imposed, according to a government statement carried by local Egyptian media Ahram Online. The statement has also called citizens to verify the authenticity of news they see on social media platforms – usually a hotbed for viral, misleading content.
Oman’s Public Prosecution said it will form a dedicated committee that will pursue rumor mongers in the Sultanate.
“Circulating these rumors poses a great danger to society, because they could harm public health or public order,” the country’s Assistant Prosecutor Jassem Al Yaqoubi, said in a report by Times of Oman.
Al-Yaqoubi said spreading rumors online would be a violation of Oman’s Anti-IT Crime Law, which carries a punishment of three years jail term and a fine of up to $7,700.
The Omani government said the severity of the punishment was increased in recent amendments, so as to deter people from engaging in such behavior.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has called the spread of fake news about the coronavirus an “infodemic.”
Here is how some Arab nations are handling the issue of fake COVID-19 news:

Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia had earlier condemned the spread of fake news surrounding the outbreak, describing it as just as dangerous than the virus itself.
The Saudi Bureau of Investigation and Public Prosecution have made arrests relating to coronavirus rumor mongering in the Kingdom, and has imposed imprisonment and a whopping fine of up to $800,000.
A source at the bureau has urged Saudis to get information from official sources only and to fully cooperate with coronavirus-related decisions issued by the government.
Kuwait has previously taken a stand against people who spread unverified information about the virus that might cause unnecessary public panic.
“We will not tolerate those who spread rumors and they will be held accountable,” Deputy Premier, Minister of Interior and Minister of State for Cabinet Affairs Anas Al-Saleh said.
Legal action has been taken against the holders of 23 social media accounts in Kuwait last week for posting misinformation about the virus.
A group of Kuwaiti academics have reiterated the danger fake information poses on society – its negative impact on people’s morale and the country’s ability to overcome the pandemic.
“Rumors harm society and spark panic and fear among its members,” according to Dr Ali Al-Zubi, a Sociology professor at Kuwait University, in an interview with state-run KUNA.
He said people were already under “enormous psychological stress” because of the outbreak.
But Al-Zubi said encouraging people to act responsibility was more effective than threatening them with tough penalties.
Authorities in the UAE earlier warned residents against spreading fake information online, saying violators will face jail sentences from three years to life in prison, and a fine of up to $816,000.
The Ministry of Interior said rumors such as exaggerating the number of infections in the country could trigger fear and panic, adding only relevant health authorities are allowed to give official numbers.
Several agencies in the country have launched concerted efforts to discredit rumors about the virus being circulated on social media.
Earlier this month, Jordan made a series of arrests for publishing fake news about COVID-19.
The country’s Public Security Directorate said they would immediately take necessary legal action against people who cause panic because of misinformation.
Bahrain’s interior ministry has also warned against getting information from unknown and unverified sources.

UN envoy calls for greater sense of urgency in Syrian peace efforts

UN envoy calls for greater sense of urgency in Syrian peace efforts
Updated 23 January 2021

UN envoy calls for greater sense of urgency in Syrian peace efforts

UN envoy calls for greater sense of urgency in Syrian peace efforts
  • Geir Pederson wants enhanced international diplomacy, and tighter focus on progress in drafting new constitution
  • The fifth session of the Small Body of the Syrian Constitutional Committee begins in Geneva on Monday

NEW YORK: Geir Pedersen, the UN’s special envoy for Syria, on Friday called for “more serious and cooperative” international diplomacy as part of political efforts to improve the lives of the Syrian people and develop a vision for the future of their country.

Speaking ahead of the fifth session of the Small Body of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, which begins on Monday in Geneva, he also urged committee members to focus their efforts and work more effectively to speed up progress on constitutional reform.

Pedersen expressed hope that much-needed international engagement with the peace process is now possible.

“After all, despite the differences, key states are continuing to reaffirm their commitment to Resolution 2254,” he added, referring to the UN Security Council resolution, adopted in 2015, that calls for a ceasefire and political settlement in Syria.

Pedersen, who briefed the Security Council this week on the latest developments, highlighted the fact that five foreign armies are active in Syria and “violations of Syrian sovereignty and territorial integrity (have been) going on for years.”

Although the ceasefire agreement reached by Russia and Turkey in the northwest of the country resulted in a de-escalation of hostilities, Pedersen warned that this relative calm remains fragile.

UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File) 

“All of these issues cannot be sorted out by the Syrians alone,” he said. (They) need an international cooperation (and) a real exchange of views (among all parties).

“If that political will is lacking it would be very, very difficult to move this process forward ... if you leave this to the UN alone, we will not be able to succeed.”

Top on the agenda on Monday will be discussion of the basic principles of the Syrian constitution. Pedersen said he has been meeting with the two co-chairs of the committee on a regular basis, and has also had intensive discussions with the “Middle Third” civil-society group, which includes society activists and experts and other independents from inside and outside of Syria.

His experiences during the past year, he said, lead him to believe there is potential for finding common ground. No single actor or group of actors can impose its will on Syria or settle the conflict alone — they must work together, he added.

The time has now come for the co-chairs of the Constitutional Committee to organize and focus its efforts by establishing “more effective and operational working methods,” Pedersen said, so that they can begin to move forward from preparing constitutional reforms to actually drafting them, and agreeing on clear agendas and discussion topics for future meetings.

“There needs to be more urgency (in) delivering progress in this process,” he added.

As he saluted the work of civil society groups and “all the Syrians who do what they can to improve the situation on the ground and support a political process,” Pedersen singled out women in particular for praise. He has been particularly proactive in seeking input from the Women’s Advisory Board.

“It is a priority for all of us to make sure that we have full participation of Syrian women in the political process,” he said. “(Promoting) their core constitutional rights is central for me, as the facilitator of the work of the Constitutional Committee.”

Asked about plans for large-scale prisoner swaps, Pedersen said that although this is not on the agenda for the talks in Geneva this week, it is always part of his own agenda. The disappointment over the lack of progress on the issue so far means “that we should work even harder” on it, he added.

“This is a file that really has an impact on nearly every Syrian family, and it needs to be addressed,” he said. “(I) have appealed (for) more information on the missing. (We) need to see the early release of women, children, the elderly and the sick, and I think (nothing) should stop that from happening.”

The members of the Small Body of the Syrian Constitutional Committee are due to arrive in Geneva on Saturday, and Pedersen will consult with the co-chairs over the weekend before the main talks begin on Monday.

Asked whether he expects this latest round of negotiations to be a success for the UN, Pedersen said: “I really do not think this is the question; the question (is) whether it is a success for the Syrian people and (their) aspirations.

“My hope has been that the Constitutional Committee, if it is handled in the correct manner, could start to build trust and (be) a door-opener for a broader political process.

“But the (committee) cannot work in isolation ... we need political will from the different parties to be able to move forward.”

He added: “The (committee) is just one aspect, and it is not the one aspect that will solve the Syrian crisis. If we are to see changes in the situation on the ground, there are other factors that need to be discussed.”