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Don’t stop the press
The UAE’s ranking on the World Press Freedom Index this year has fallen two points from last year. Will upcoming regulations change that?
November 23, 2008 3:36 by kippreport
The UAE has a history of censoring the media. In November 2007, the Pakistani satellite channel Geo TV was temporarily pulled off the air during the Pakistani emergency rule period. Earlier this year, Dubai Media City even threatened to expel the station from its grounds if it did not drop two political talk shows. Similarly, Etisalat blocked a blog called “Mujarad Ensan” (Just a Man) on October 12th 2008, as it reportedly analyzed the consequences of the US subprime crisis for the region. It was made accessible 10 days later.
For all that and much more, the country ranks 69th (out of a total of 173) on the World Press Freedom Index 2008, which was recently released by the international body Reporters Without Borders. The country’s ranking has fallen two positions from last year.
Among GCC countries, the UAE ranks second, followed by Kuwait which ranks 61st on the index. Interestingly, Kuwait has gone up by two ranks. Predictably, Saudi Arabia ranks the last among the countries, at 161. “Nothing is possible in Saudi Arabia if it does not accord with government policy,” says the report.
Apart from taking into account direct media violations such as imprisonment, physical attacks and harassment, the report also measures the level of self-censorship in each country and the ability of the media to investigate and criticize. It also assesses the legal framework for the media and reflects violations of the free flow of information on the internet.
The report claims the media in the GCC is less restricted than before, but adds that Gulf nations need to do much more to safeguard the media’s freedom. It quotes examples of journalists in Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar who have complained about how hard it was to get access to official information and report on social unrest; journalists in Doha said in December that they had not been able to report freely on the strikes staged by foreign workers. In October, the Qatar Supreme Court limited the media’s access to courts; journalists must now have a judge’s permission to be there.
The report also takes into account freedom of speech for bloggers and online news analysis websites, which it states is threatened in the region. In the UAE, all content that is “considered against the moral and ethical values of the country” is banned. That includes popular sites like Flickr and Orkut, and specific sections of Facebook.
“We regret that the UAE is falling into the trap of trying to control online content by means of all-out filtering or blocking websites without explanation,” Reporters Without Borders said.
Last year, Muhammad Rashed Shehhi, owner of the website Majan.net, was arrested in Ras Al Khaimah for a comment an anonymous contributor posted about the royal family. He was sentenced to a year in prison, but the decision was revoked after political pressure.
But conditions for journalists and bloggers may change soon. The UAE is currently mulling over a new media law, which states that there shall not be prior censorship of any media outlets in the country. While the draft law has been passed by the ministerial legislative committee, it still requires the Cabinet’s approval and the President’s signature before it can be enacted. The law also incorporates Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed’s instructions issued last year, that no journalist is to be jailed for reasons related to his work.
His instructions followed a Dubai court ruling giving two journalists’ jail terms for defaming an Iranian woman. The two were later freed.
But the law also implies that while censorship will be banned, journalists have to act responsibly while reporting. And with most journalists in the UAE coming from outside the country, writing articles or blog entries that the government deems inappropriate can mean a one-way ticket out of the country.
But, given Abu Dhabi’s plan to attract some of the world’s leading news agencies to its new media park, TwoFour54, the emirate (and the nation) will have to ensure greater press freedom. But will the new law be able to provide that? –AN