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UAE cracks down on bloggers and online dissidents

The government of the United Arab Emirates is cracking down on online dissidents and bloggers, after the rise of protests and political uprisings across the Gulf.

According to UAE state news agency WAM, government officials have updated current Internet laws so that nationals can face jail time for mocking the country's leaders or government agencies. The law proposes imprisonment for anyone who "uses any information technology medium to deride or damage the reputation or stature of the state or any of its institutions."

Although the UAE is generally considered the most moderate of the Middle Eastern countries, the announced penalties show a regional tightening on online political activism that has steadily increased in recent years.

In July, the government forced an activist blogger, Ahmed Abdul Khaleq, to choose between indefinite detention or exile for "publicly insulting" the UAE's president in an online forum.

The new laws also include jail time for any UAE national who "calls for demonstrations, marches and similar activities without a license". This may be in response to the rise of citizens in neighbouring Gulf States arranging political protests through social media sites.

In Bahrain, where members of the country's Shia Muslim majority are revolting against the Sunni monarchy, the activist Nabeel Rajab was jailed for three years in August after he organised protests through social networks.

In Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter and the Gulf's largest country, the authorities have been alarmed by the way citizens used social media to expose a government scandal. When a gas truck crashed into a bridge in Riyadh this month, killing and wounding dozens, Saudi Twitter users debunked the initial official line that there were no casualties by posting pictures of the injured and forcing the government to acknowledge the victims.

"Part of the reason we have seen a flourishing of critical thought in the Gulf is that people have had the space to do it on blogs, chat sites and Twitter," Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and north Africa director of campaign group Human Rights Watch, told the Financial Times.

"Now, instead of giving their societies the chance to grow and develop, governments are clamping down on it," she added.

Image Credit: Flickr (Joi), (A.Davey)