Using Social Media to Complain, And UAE Law

How can you use social media to make complaints over unfair treatment in the UAE? WhichSchoolAdvisor.com spoke to Omar Khodeir, a Senior Associate at Al Tamimi & Company, the largest law firm in the Middle East, to find out.
Using Social Media to Complain, And UAE Law
By David Westley
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You feel aggrieved and want to punish the offending institution for the slight or wrong you feel you have been subject to. What better way than to 'name and shame' on social media, right?

Wrong... While naming and shaming can result in a fairly swift response, and often contrition, from the, allegedly, offending institution, WhichSchoolAdvisor.com has recently been made aware of two cases where using Facebook, Instagram and Twitter in this way has caused the perpetrator serious issues - a hefty fine and jail time.

One school in Dubai, which was the object of allegations on Twitter against both the school and members of the senior team, made a formal complaint to the police. The police investigated the case and issued an arrest order against the offending parent. In this case, the parent concerned had left the country, but the parent is now subject to a ban and will be arrested on arrival to the UAE.

The school Principal concerned commented to WSA:

"The parent in this case made some unsubstantiated and unacceptable accusations on Twitter, including alleging that a member of the senior team was not fit to be around children.

"The parent did not accept the school's decision that their child was not in the top set for Mathematics. I wrote to the parents asking them to take down the offending posts, they refused; and followed up with a formal solicitor's letter - they still refused. Given the career-damaging nature of these posts, we decided to report the incident to the police, who took the decision to prosecute."

Last week, we reported on a case where, although the intention was not a complaint, a young man was accused of inciting hatred against teachers and schools and given a 5-year jail term in Abu Dhabi, fined 500,000 AED and had his Instagram account shut down. He said he had been making fun of the Emirati accent to friends. The court felt his use of a medium with widespread access meant he was inciting hatred.

Social media is clearly a powerful medium, and as with anything this powerful, it demands responsible use. Twitter and FB is able to hold institutions to account, and can shape opinions and damage reputations - both of individuals and businesses.

In countries such as the UK, anyone who is the object of defamation can seek redress by bringing a civil case, suing the offending individual for damages. However, it is not a criminal offence. Furthermore, in the UK it is not possible to defame an organisation, such as a company or a school. In either case, the process is costly and rarely worth the time an effort.

However, parents tempted to resort to social media in the emirates should be aware that Federal Law in the UAE is more stringent than in many other countries. Here making defamatory comments is both a civil and criminal wrong, falling foul of the Federal Law No. 5 of 2012 on the Prevention of Information Technology Crimes (the "Cyber Crimes Law") which has very punitive sanctions.

Given the widespread use to call out institutions - not just schools, but all businesses from restaurants to airlines - we spoke to Omar Khodeir, a Senior Associate at Al Tamimi & Company, the Middle East's largest law firm, to find out what is acceptable usage of social media to make a complaint - and in fact if there is acceptable usage at all...

Is there a legitimate way to use social media for complaint when a parent feels aggrieved, and if so what is that usage - what does it look like?

"Despite that a vast number of users think otherwise, social media is not the best platform for conveying complaints. Internet users resort to social media pages to publish posts that reveal their distress and frustration with the owner of the social media page, whether a school, a private or public entity, so as to have a certain problem resolved. From the users and complaining parties’ mind-set, the aim of such posts is usually to put some pressure to get the attention of those entities for a quick resolution (given that the posts are reviewed by the public and thus may affect their reputation).

From the entities’ mind-set, these posts are possibly defaming them as the social media page was probably created for marketing and advertisement purposes, not as a platform to hear complaints publicly. There are other avenues to submit such complaints, such as the entity’s email, link on website, customer service, etc.

Accordingly, an aggrieved parent should always reconsider different options to convey a complaint, other than social media, as it may put the parent at a higher risk for criminal and civil liability.

As mentioned above, the parent should exhaust all possible formal avenues. This includes contacting the entity/school via email, a phone call, filing a complaint on their website or available links for that purpose, send or courier a private letter, pay the entity/school a visit etc... Relying on pressure from a reputational angle is a legal risk that should be carefully considered."

Social media does give power to parents, and this has served a legitimate and valuable role to society in general - it means schools cannot become complacent or ignore their parents. Equally, however parents need to understand the parameters of what a fair complaint / comment is online: What can be said? What cannot be said? And in both cases, why?

"As noted and whilst it is not recommended to post complaints publicly as there would be room for risk, if a parent insists on posting on social media – after considering the risks outlined above – the words used in the post should not be defamatory in any manner. As a matter of fact, they should be polite and objective.

If the parent is acting in good faith whereby the post genuinely aims to get the attention of the entity/school to respond and address the problem (as the parent for example could not reach the entity/school through other avenues) i.e. it does not aim to pressure them as public users are watching this conversation, then the wording should be respectful. The distinctive line between what is considered defamatory and what is considered normal/respectful is debatable and is subject to the wide discretionary powers of the UAE’s Public Prosecution and Criminal Courts.

However, in layman’s terms, it makes a difference if a user posts statements that subjects another to hatred than simply requesting someone to call back. One post could read: “This entity did x, y and z.. Accordingly, this entity is a disgrace. They are negligent and never respond despite the huge mistake they made etc..” compared to: “I have a problem that requires immediate action. I tried calling with no answer. Please get back to me at the earliest”. Arguably, the first statement is defamatory whereas the second one is not. Defamation is a criminal offence under the UAE Laws, whether done publicly or privately.

Per the general mind-set we outlined above and the acts we commonly see on social media, complaints on social media always give a first impression that it is being posted on social media to put pressure from a reputational point, which in turn give an impression of the likelihood of defamation and hence one should be more careful with public posts compared to private ones. Similarly, a statement such as: “If you do not send me/do (a certain act), I will tell everyone and/or publish the documents that show the mistake you did, file a criminal case against you” is considered a threat or blackmail, whether done publicly or privately, which is another criminal offence."

What rights do schools have to protect themselves? What are the possible consequences for a parent that uses social media in a way that contravenes UAE law.

"Defamatory statements/posts against a school, give the right to the latter to initiate criminal and/or civil proceedings against the person who laid down or posted such statement. From practice, the criminal route is the common one that parties resort to.

If the statements include defamatory statements and hence a criminal offence was committed, the criminal complaint would get registered. The accused party would be called to attend to the Police and if he/she abstains, an arrest could occur at the airport if he/she tries to leave/enter the UAE or elsewhere as the case may be. Ultimately, the accused party may face an imprisonment and/or fine penalty if he was deemed guilty by the Criminal Courts.

Thereafter, a civil action can be initiated to claim for compensation for the damages sustained."

 

Clearly using social media to fire off an angry response, may feel satisfying short term, but is not without quite considerable risk. It may take longer, and be less immediately appealing approaching a school more formally, but it is a considerably safer way to discuss issues you have, and given the cooling off period, may result is a more balanced, and longer term, solution that is better and fairer for all....

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