Press Censorship in UAE

 Censorship imposed by financial penalty rather than jail

28th January

Update: Vague Censorship...

New UAE press law replaces jail by sever financial penalties

The UAE Government plans to clarify its new media law, which some observers have said is too vague.

The draft law was passed by the Federal National Council (FNC), although it must still be approved by the Cabinet and the President to take effect.

The first draft of the 45-article piece of legislation was written by the National Media Council, a government body that oversees journalists. An FNC committee then reworked the draft, making changes to at least 60% of its provisions.

Ibrahim al Abed, the NMC’s director general, said the Government would release an appendix to the law within eight weeks that should clear up what critics have termed vague provisions.

The appendix could include more details about who would be held liable in a media case, whether it will be the individual journalist, the editor-in-chief, or the news organisation as a whole.

According to the draft law, the responsibility is to be shared by the editor-in-chief and the journalist, although media organisations could be fined.

Mr al Abed defended the fines, which start at Dh10,000 (US$2,720) and rise to Dh5 million for insulting the President, the Vice President, the Rulers, and the Crown Princes and their deputies.

Under the proposed legislation, journalists are protected against being imprisoned for what they write, but can face hefty fines for publishing or broadcasting material that harms national interests or the economy.

Mohammed Yousef, the director of the UAE Journalists Association, said last week that he would continue to lobby for changes to the law before it was passed. Yousef said the FNC committee had integrated almost none of his association’s recommendations.


16th April

Update: An Insult to Free Press...

New UAE press law with fines of £1 million for insulting the government or royal family

A new draft law to regulate the news media unlawfully restricts free expression and will unduly interfere with the media's ability to report on sensitive subjects, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The pending law also includes provisions that would grant the government virtually complete control in deciding who is allowed to work as a journalist and which media organizations are allowed to operate in the country.

The report: Just the Good News, Please: New UAE Media Law Continues to Stifle Press says that the new law contains some improvement over the draconian media law currently in effect. But it will continue to punish journalists for such infractions as disparaging government officials or publishing misleading news that harms the country's economy. Human Rights Watch researched the report by analyzing the provisions of the pending law as well as interviewing foreign and local journalists based in the UAE.

The law will muzzle the press, preventing honest reporting about the country's continuing financial crisis or about its rulers, said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch: Its vague clauses and harsh fines will almost guarantee arbitrariness by government authorities and self-censorship by the media.

The Federal National Council, the UAE's legislature, passed the draft law on January 20, 2009, and it awaits the signature of President Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan. More than 100 leading Emirati academics, journalists, lawyers, and human rights activists have urged the president to reconsider the law. The Human Rights Watch report also urges the president not to approve the pending law in its current form.

Unlike the current law, the proposed law contains no criminal penalties and will be part of the civil law. It reduces the number of administrative infractions that media organizations can be held liable for. The law also instructs government institutions to facilitate information flow to media, and, most significant, mandates that journalists cannot be coerced into revealing their sources.

But the law imposes exorbitant civil penalties that could bankrupt media outlets and silence dissenting voices found to violate the overbroad restrictions on content. Media organizations found to have disparaged senior government officials or the royal family face fines up to 5,000,000 dirhams (US$1,350,000), and those found to have misled the public and harmed the economy face fines of up to 500,000 dirhams (US$135,000). It also requires media organizations to post an unspecified security deposit against which fines may be charged, which would set a significant barrier to entry for smaller, independent press organizations.

The law also gives the government authority to regulate who can work as an editor, reporter, correspondent, or producer in the country. This authority is susceptible to abuse and infringes on the media's freedom of expression by preventing media outlets from organizing, managing, and operating free from governmental interference, the report says.

These intrusions make a mockery of the notion that an independent media exists in the UAE, Whitson said: The president has the option to send this law back and to show leadership in seeking a law that truly supports a free press.


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