Just the Good News, Please: New UAE Media Law Continues to Stifle Press”
Posted by 7starsdubai on April 13, 2009
source The National UAE
UAE media law ‘falls short’
DUBAI // The UAE’s draft media law represents “significant” improvements, but does not go far enough and will continue to restrict press freedoms, according to a Human Rights Watch report released yesterday.
Representatives from the US-based rights watchdog were in Dubai for the launch of the report entitled “Just the Good News, Please: New UAE Media Law Continues to Stifle Press” based on an analysis of the pending law.
“The law is a step in the right direction, but does not go far enough,” said Samer Muscati, a Human Rights Watch (HRW) researcher. “It shows positive reforms, but falls short.”
The law, which would replace existing 29 year-old legislation, has yet to be ratified by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, the President of the UAE. The 45-article draft document was endorsed by the Federal National Council on Jan 20, but since then has sparked debate with proponents saying it will protect journalists, and critics contending it will only continue to stifle free expression.
Mr Muscati said that passing the draft law would present a “missed opportunity”, calling parts too vague and that it could perpetuate restrictions and self-censorship in the UAE’s media.
However, in a statement released yesterday, the National Media Council (NMC) said the HRW report did not represent a “fair assessment” of the law.
“The HRW comments and recommendations are based to a large extent on a failure to understand fully a number of significant aspects of the draft Media Law,” the NMC statement said.
“[The draft law] has not been designed for application in other societies, with different value systems, but is only to be applicable within the context of the United Arab Emirates.”
In its statement, the UAE media’s regulatory body stated that it welcomes “informed discussion and debate” on the draft law, before addressing specific concerns raised in the report.
The HRW report acknowledged positive aspects of the draft law, including an article which stipulates that journalists should not be coerced into revealing their sources. There are now just three areas which could result in penalties, as opposed to 16 in the 1980 law.
However, one of main areas of concern outlined in the report are the high fines prescribed by the law, including Dh5 million for journalists found to have personally insulted the President, other senior federal Government officials or crown princes.
Similarly, fines imposed for other “content based restrictions” including information that could harm the economy, are also cause for concern, the report stated, as well as what HRW described as government controls on the registration of media outlets in the country.
“The need to provide security deposits could discriminate against small and independent media and might lead to an absence of independent voices in the mix,” Mr Muscati said.
However, according to the NMC, the security deposit is necessary to insure that media outlets are financially viable. Furthermore any news deemed harmful to the economy would only be against the law if it was “misleading or erroneous and is known to be such by the writer”.
The 1980 media law includes scope for journalists to be jailed for their work. However, a 2007 decree issued by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, protected journalists from such punishments.
Nevertheless, HRW said there is a need for an explicit reference in the draft law stating that journalists will not be jailed or face criminal prosecution for their work.
The NMC statement pointed out that many of the issues, including those raised by HRW, will be clarified in regulations that will be issued once the law has been passed.
Earlier this year, a group of over 100 journalists, academics, lawyers and activists petitioned Sheikh Khalifa to reject the draft law. Ahmed Mansoor, an Emirati blogger and activist, was among the signatories and was present at the HRW report launch yesterday.
“One thing that is of most concern to me is that the imprisonment for journalists is not clearly prohibited in the law,” he said. “Also the need for media outlets to advance money for future penalties.”
The HRW report was compiled through consultation with journalists and activists from and based in the UAE, the Journalists’ Association, as well as with the NMC itself, which also met with the HRW representatives earlier this week.
The organisation has published reports in the past on press freedoms in countries including Sudan, China, Morocco and the US. However, the UAE’s case is particularly important, Mr Muscati said, because it is a “leader in the region,” and a law that protects the press could set a “good example”.
The rights group has previously focused on conditions for migrant workers in the UAE and their latest report on the subject is expected to be released in the coming few weeks.
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