His Highness Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice-president and prime minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, yesterday issued instructions that journalists were not to be jailed for doing their work.
This news leads every newspaper in the UAE today and rightly so, because it is important news and a huge step forwards. The news, incidentally, followed two days after the announcement that two Khaleej Times journalists were to be jailed for libel.
Interestingly the newspapers were all silent on the subject the day after the libel case was announced. All apart from Emarat Al Youm, the Arabic language daily newspaper published by government-owned Arab Media Group, which also publishes the English language Emirates Today. Emarat Al Youm published an excoriating three-page piece on media freedom in the UAE, detailing issues and investigations that had been faced by many of the dailies published in the Emirates.
Emirates Today, silent on the issue of media freedom yesterday, takes great pains to splash the Sheikh Mohammed today - and to claim the credit for the move coming after its 'sister newspaper condemned the decision to imprison two journalists... the report categorically criticised the sentencing of two journalists...'
And so it did, but many will find Emirates Today riding on the back of the widely recognised strong editorial standards of its Arabic 'sister' paper just a little rich.
There's some interesting ambiguity in the reports. Making the announcement, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, chairman of the National Media Council (NMC) said that no journalist is to be jailed for reasons related to his work, adding (according to Gulf News which is itself very careful to attribute the quote to WAM, the national news agency) that there are 'other measures that may be taken against journalists who break the press and publication law, but not jail.'
If you want to wade through it, then here's a link to a copy of that law. It's a fascinating read if you're anything to do with media in the region and is in PDF format.
The KT case, if it was heard under the publishing law (likely as the case was brought by the public prosecution and looks like it might have followed an earlier civil case in which KT was exonerated) appears to have been an argument between article 47, which permits the quotations of arguments and pleading which take place in the courts and article 79, which prohibits publishing details of an individual's private life. I may just be wrong there, it's difficult to tell because of the paucity of information in the media reports of the trial.
If we are reading the announcement about the publishing law right, this would also mean that the stipulated one to six month jail terms for offences under clauses 71 to 85 (too numerous to reproduce here, but worth looking through, believe me!) are also out. And that's really interesting.
The press and publication law is due to be replaced by newer legislation. However, it has to be said that this new legislation has been awaited for a long time - arguably since the announcement that Dubai Media City was to be established.
The two KT journalists have been freed on bail. It is only to be hoped that their case will, indeed, be covered by this directive and that this is a step on the road towards a more open media. However, the new media legislation - a huge task and a complex one - is really going to define that: as is the way it is implemented by the courts.
Incidentally, Gulf News' editorial today rumbles on about press freedom and makes the point that Sheikh Mohammed's move proves that the press truly is the fourth estate. I found that interesting, as here in the UAE it is not the fourth estate nor could it be. So that was a silly thing to say, wasn't it?