NEW amendments to Bahrain's criminal law that would prosecute people for deliberately spreading false information has been questioned by the Shura Council.
Council members say the articles of the Penal Code, in which convicts would be jailed for up to two years and fined a minimum of BD200, could cause more damage than good if implemented.
They argued, during yesterday's weekly session, that it would be impossible to determine who intentionally or unintentionally committed the crime.
Under the existing law, anyone who spreads false information would be prosecuted, meaning the new amendments were made to increase the margin of freedom of speech, according to the government.
The council has instructed its Foreign Affairs, Defence and National Security Committee to meet representatives from political, human rights and journalist societies, groups and associations before any vote could be taken on the issue.
Council First Vice-Chairman Jamal Fakhro said the consent of civil society was necessary to pass the amendments as it would affect freedom of speech in the country.
"The committee will have to meet representatives from the civil society, whether political, human rights or journalist groups to seek their opinion on what effect the amendments would have on the country," he said.
Meanwhile, council member Dr Abdulaziz Abul said legislators have to be cautious when studying the amendments as Bahrain's efforts in handling issues relating to freedom of expression are being monitored by the international community.
"The world is watching Bahrain's practice of human rights and how the government deals with people voicing their opinion," he said.
"Also, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) indicated there are practices that people have been punished for during the unrest that fall within internationally accepted levels of freedom of speech.
"Those who spread information are not the ones producing it and we can't punish them even if what they did is intentional or not, but instead the government should be looking for ways to come up with something that determines what freedom of speech is."
His comments were backed by Ebrahim Bashmi, who argued that citizens should not be prosecuted for such an act, particularly when the Press Law prohibits jailing journalists, who spread false information.
"If those responsible to be objective, such media personnel and journalists, are just fined, then how can we put people who are not aware of what is right and what is wrong or are under the assumption that what they are saying is the truth in jail," he asked.
Meanwhile, council members approved other amendments to the Code including jailing those convicted of publishing false documents, leaflets or fabricated pictures that harm national security and negatively affect the economy for up to two years and minimum fine of BD200.
They also omitted two articles including the punishment of people taking part in foreign political, social or economic gatherings that intend to harm Bahrain and prosecuting those who produce, promote, spread or publish pictures that may harm the country's reputation.
Justice, Islamic Affairs and Endowments Minister Shaikh Khalid bin Ali Al Khalifa said the amendments were in line with international laws surrounding freedom of speech.
"The theoretical assumption that someone is saying something to deliberately harm the country is wrong," he said.
"We have to acknowledge that difference in opinion is subjective and not objective and what is considered false to someone is true to another.
"The amendments have been taken from European laws and prepared in line with Bahrain's Penal Code in the summer and not as action to the BICI recommendations."