Coronavirus: UAE Attorney General warns against rumours and dismisses need for panic buying

Residents and Emiratis caught spreading incorrect information about Covid-19 to face legal action, says Dr Hamad Al Shamsi

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The UAE’s Attorney General has warned against the spread of misinformation, including the need to hoard food supplies, amid the global coronavirus outbreak.

On Monday, Dr Hamad Al Shamsi dismissed rumours, that have been spreading on social media, telling Emiratis and residents they should stock up on food and essential home supplies from supermarkets, saying it created “horror” among people.

"Unauthorised people have been spreading false information about the spread of the virus between people in the country and about the response from authorities and their efforts,” he said.

"There was also incorrect information spread that people should be staying at home and that they were not allowed into public places.”

It threatens public safety and security, and spreading rumours is a crime

Some countries have reported widespread panic buying with items including rice, toilet paper and canned goods being cleared out of supermarkets. Supermarkets in those countries have begun introducing purchase limits on certain goods as a result.

Locally, each emirate has implemented precautionary measures to restrict activities in public spaces and prevent the spread of Covid-19 but Dr Al Shamsi said rumours shared online continue to cause alarm.

He said anyone caught sharing incorrect information, both purposefully or out of ignorance, would face legal consequences.

"We hope to highlight the dangers of spreading false news and its impact on social and economic sectors. It could breach societal peace and create a state of panic

and fear. It threatens public safety and security, and spreading rumours is a crime.”

He said some people in the UAE had already been reprimanded for spreading false information but did not disclose their charges or punishments.

Dr Al Shamsi said legal action would be taken in response to the offence. Spreading fake news or rumours could be considered a threat to national security, a misdemeanour or fall under the country’s cybercrime laws.

Lawyers in the country previously told The National that local legislation expressly prohibits spreading rumours that could affect security and "incite public panic".

The warning came days after the UAE announced its first case of coronavirus, in January.

Dr Hassan Elhais, a legal consultant with Al Rowaad Advocates and columnist for The National said authorities had every right to take the spreading of false rumours seriously.

“Actions such as circulating hoax news about serious matters that can contribute to public fear and panic are penalised.”