‘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)
Short Url
Updated 30 March 2020

‘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
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.
UAE
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.
Jordan
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
Bahrain’s interior ministry has also warned against getting information from unknown and unverified sources.


Resumed cargo flights: Thaw in Israel-Turkey ties?

Updated 25 May 2020

Resumed cargo flights: Thaw in Israel-Turkey ties?

  • Ankara’s involvement in Syria’s Idlib province against the Tehran-backed Assad regime has recently provided a common denominator for Turkey and Israel to reconcile
  • Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians remains a major irritant in relations with Ankara – Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday reiterated his support for the Palestinians

ISTANBUL: Israeli airline El Al has resumed cargo flights twice weekly between Tel Aviv and Istanbul for the first time in 10 years — a sign that decade-long bilateral tensions might be easing.
A cargo flight landed in Istanbul on Sunday morning to pick up humanitarian aid and protective equipment destined for US medical teams fighting COVID-19.
Burhanettin Duran, head of the Ankara-based think tank SETA, wrote that Turkey’s regional empowerment is “obliging Israel to search for normalization steps with Ankara.”
Dr. Nimrod Goren, head of the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, said the cargo flight is a positive and visible development in bilateral relations that was probably approved by top government officials on both sides and required diplomatic efforts.
“However, the fact that this step takes place in parallel to a discussion about Israeli annexation in the West Bank, and to criticism of annexation by regional and international actors, might impact how it’s viewed in Turkey,” he told Arab News.
Goren said while the Israeli and Turkish governments continue to have significant policy differences, they should work to restore their relations to ambassadorial level, and to relaunch a strategic dialogue on regional developments of mutual interest.
“The forming of a new Israeli government, and the appointment of Gabi Ashkenazi as a new foreign minister, could be an opportunity to do so, and the cargo flight brings some positive momentum,” he added.
Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador in May 2018 after the US moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Ankara’s involvement in Syria’s Idlib province against the Tehran-backed Assad regime has recently provided a common denominator for Turkey and Israel to reconcile, as it also serves the latter’s strategic interests in weakening the Iranian presence in Syria.
But Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians remains a major irritant in relations with Ankara. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday reiterated his support for the Palestinians. 
In a video message on Twitter, he said the issue of Jerusalem “is a red line for all Muslims worldwide.”
He added that Israel’s “new occupation and annexation project … disrespects Palestine’s sovereignty and international law.”
Ryan Bohl, Middle East analyst at geopolitical-risk firm Stratfor, told Arab News: “Turkey is trying to create economic ties with Israel because … Erdogan is finding the political ground changed, caused in part by demographic changes as young Turks are less incensed by the Palestinian issue, and in part by a general weariness among Turks about putting too much skin in the game to solve the Palestinian question,” 
Israel is expected to annex large parts of the occupied West Bank on July 1 under the terms of a coalition government agreement. Ankara has strongly criticized the plan.
Israeli and Turkish officials are rumored to have held talks behind closed doors to reach a deal on maritime borders and exclusive economic zones in the eastern Mediterranean. 
Israel’s Foreign Ministry recently said it was “proud of our diplomatic relations with Turkey.”
But Goren said it is currently unlikely that Israel will advance a maritime demarcation deal with Turkey as it would shake several regional balances at the same time.
“It will put in jeopardy, and run in contrast to, the important alliances in the eastern Mediterranean that Israel has fostered in recent years with Greece, Cyprus and Egypt,” he added.