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 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.