Rights groups, media workers concerned over draft UAE media bill

The United Arab Emirates’ new proposed media law, recently approved by the Federal National Council (FNC), is causing a stir among press freedom groups and journalist circles. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has appealed to the UAE’s Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, urging him to reject the law, which the group warns would harm press freedom in the UAE.
Press freedom groups criticize proposed United Arab Emirates media law © ARES

BEIRUT, March 16, 2009 (MENASSAT) - The United Arab Emirates' proposed legislation, commonly known as the “regulation of media activities” law, was adopted by the Federal National Council (FNC) in late January this year and will ‎replace the 1980 press code, which currently regulates media activities in the UAE. 

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) recently obtained a copy of the draft law, and is “alarmed” by several provisions in the proposal that will muzzle free speech, the rights group said in a statement.

Questionable provisions
The new legislation includes a number of articles that grants the government permission to impose serious fines on journalists.

Take Article 32, for example, which imposes heavy fines of up to $272,000 for publishing articles that “disparage the personage” of “the head of ‎‎state, his deputy, or other senior federal officials or their deputies.”

Or the next provision, Article 33, which imposes fines of up to $136,127 for broadly defined breeches such as publishing “misleading” articles“ in a manner that harms the country’s reputation, foreign relations or obligations or defaces its national identity” or “harms the country’s national economy.”

CPJ emphasizes that the vague definitions of these two articles could allow false accusations against media workers to surface, as well as politically motivated charges. The organization also voices concern over the high fines, saying they will lead to self-censorship among journalists in fear of the possibility of a fatal financial blow to their media institutions.

The draft legislation also provides courts with the authority to revoke licenses or suspend operations of media outlets for a minimum of 180 days if the institution violates the law.

The new law also includes some sections on government surveillance of the media.

Article 21 stipulates that printing houses must send copies of printed materials to the governmental National Media Council (NMC). Article 24 states that the NMC shall at a later time establish a surveillance mechanism for audiovisual media as well.

“Backward step”

The provisions in the draft bill have sent a chill through the local media and has attracted criticism from UAE journalists who claim the proposal will have a negative effect on freedom of the press.

Mohammed Youssef, the director of the UAE Journalists Association called the draft bill a “backward step” in a report published by Kuwait Times.

"It did not take our demands into consideration. This is a backward step," he said, stating that the provisions contain too many prohibitions that could stifle free speech, although the new draft law would restrict punishment to fines.

In February, more than a hundred UAE-based journalists and advocates of free speech sent a petition to Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, asking him to reject the draft law‎ until their concerns were addressed.

CPJ said that Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed had initially ordered the establishment of a committee to review the law and ‎consider the concerns of the media workers. But the group said that there is no evidence of such a committee ever being formed.

“Frees” the press

While many media workers remain skeptical of the bill, some Emirati journalists are in favor of the proposal, claiming the provision will serve as a protection mechanism for their industry.

“It’s not to stop bad news,” said Abdullatif al-Sayegh, head of the Dubai-based Arab Media Group. It is to prevent journalists “digging for bad news” he said. “The law is to protect the media community and only those who don’t have the ABCs of the business are worried,” he added.

The NMC continues to defend the bill, while claiming the draft law actually “frees” the press from existing constraints.

"The current law has 16 articles that stipulate penalties ... The draft law stipulates only three cases," NMC director-general Ibrahim Al-Abed explained. "These include criticizing the head of the state and the rulers of the emirates, publishing misleading news that could harm the national economy and publishing material insulting the traditions and values" of the UAE, he said.

Al-Abed also emphasized that jail sentences have been replaced with fines in cases involving media criticisms of the head of state.

The draft law was adopted in the midst of a sharp economic downturn in the UAE. But government officials are saying that the draft bill is in “no way a response” to the ongoing financial turmoil or an attempt to restrain media coverage of the crisis. They claim the draft legislation was born two years ago, at the height of the UAE boom.

 “It’s merely a coincidence that the legislation has reached the stage of review … when our economy, like that of every country, is facing complex problems,” said Al-Abed.