Letters   |   UAE

CPJ concerned about UAE draft media law

March 9, 2009

His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan
President of the United Arab Emirates
C/o Embassy of the United Arab Emirates
3522 International Court, NW
Suite
400
Washington
, D.C. 20008

Via facsimile: +1-202-243-2432

 

Your Highness,

We are writing to express our concern about a draft of the United Arab Emirates' media law, recently approved by the Federal National Council (FNC). We urge you to reject the law in its current form, which if passed would negatively impact the state of press freedom in the UAE.

The FNC adopted the draft, commonly known as the "regulation of media activities" law, on January 20. If approved, it would replace the 1980 press code, which currently regulates media activities in the UAE. The draft was drawn up by the National Media Council (NMC) about two years ago, according to local news reports.

CPJ asks that you send the pending legislation back to its drafters, so that it can be rewritten in a manner that takes into account the informed and legitimate concerns of journalists and media practitioners in the UAE.

In early February, more than a hundred‏ ‏local journalists and press freedom advocates petitioned you to suspend the draft law until their concerns were addressed. Some regional press reported that you ordered the formation of a committee to review the law and consider the concerns of journalists. CPJ found no evidence that such a committee was ever created.

We are encouraged by some positive steps that your government has taken in recent years to improve the state of press freedom in the UAE. In September 2007, Vice President and Prime Minister Sheikh Muhammad Bin Rashid Al Maktum issued a directive abolishing prison terms for press violations. We are also heartened to see that Article 4 of the draft protects journalists from having to reveal their sources.

However, based on a review of an early version of the draft law, which CPJ has obtained, we are alarmed--as are local and international journalists and press freedom advocates--by a number of provisions that, if passed, will inevitably stifle free expression. Specifically, CPJ is concerned about the following articles:

  • While Article 2 guarantees the right to freedom of expression through the spoken or written word and Article 3 states that licensed media shall not be subjected to "pre-publication monitoring," or censorship, Article 21 compels printing houses to submit copies of all printed matter to the NMC. Article 24 states that the NMC shall at a later time institute a monitoring mechanism for audiovisual media as well. CPJ is concerned that articles 21 and 24 will institute an environment of self-censorship among journalists.
  • Article 6 confers on the cabinet the authority to license newspapers in accordance with the ‎‎recommendations of the NMC. The article states that applications that are not approved within 180 days are automatically rejected, which allows for stonewalling. CPJ believes that this provision places undue restrictions on the establishment of new media outlets. It is also imperative that denied applicants be given specific reasons for why their applications have been rejected.  
  • Article 9 requires media companies to deposit an unspecified amount of money as collateral to be used by the NMC to satisfy any future fines that may be imposed for press violations. Depending on the sum required, CPJ is concerned that this provision may place an excessive financial burden on emerging media companies, making an unknown number of media ventures unviable before they are ever launched.
  • Article 11 asserts that the "editor in-chief is liable alongside the creator and writer of matter that is published." The draft law neglects to specify whether this legal responsibility is civil or criminal. CPJ strongly believes that editorial liability must always remain in the realm of civil law.
  • Article 35 grants courts the authority to cancel licenses or suspend media operations for a minimum of 180 days if the media outlet violates the law. The length of the suspension is doubled for repeat offenders. CPJ believes that operations should not be suspended under any circumstance and that a number of alternative punitive and corrective measures can address any infractions of the press code.
  • Article 32 imposes heavy fines of up to 1,000,000 AED ($272,000) for writing pieces that are deemed to "disparage the personage" of the head of ‎‎state, his deputy, or other senior federal officials or their deputies. Additionally, Emirati journalists and press freedom advocates who wish to remain anonymous have told CPJ on multiple occasions--and the FNC confirms--that the Federal National Council amended this article when it adopted the draft law in January, increasing the fine to up to 5,000,000 AED ($1,361,000). CPJ could not independently verify this information and could not obtain a copy of the draft law as it was passed by the FNC. Article 33 imposes fines of up to 500,000 AED ($136,127) for vaguely defined violations 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's concern with regard to articles 32 and 33 is twofold: first, the vague definition of what constitutes a violation can be easily manipulated to facilitate politically motivated charges; secondly, the exorbitant fines associated with these loosely defined press violations are bound to induce self-censorship on the part of journalists who recognize that such excessive fines can deal a fatal blow to their media companies. Those provisions, in conjunction with the monitoring mechanisms (articles 21 and 24) are bound to adversely affect the quality of investigative journalism in the UAE.  

We believe that your country has an outstanding opportunity to establish a progressive media law that can serve as a model to be emulated by other countries in the region, especially at a time when many of them are in the process of amending their press codes. We urge you to ensure that the concerns of journalists and press freedom advocates are addressed and that legislators pass a media law that complies with international standards for free expression.

Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters. We look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

Joel Simon
Executive Director

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