A great day for press freedom in the UAE?
The UAE media law passed through the Federal National Council yesterday and the newspapers, struggling to find any positive angle on the story, can only reiterate that the new law means that journalists won't face jail terms 'for carrying out their duties'.
The draft law just needs to be ratified by the cabinet and the President to pass onto the statute books. There has been a great deal of unhappiness expressed by the newspapers over the new law, which replaces the positively archaic 'old media law' of 1980. You can find an e-copy of the old law here and wonder for yourself at how much has changed. Or then again, perhaps not.
I tried, but failed, to find a copy of the new law anywhere, but The National does give more information on its provisions that anyone else today. Sure enough, the law stipulates fines of between Dhs 50,000 to Dhs 1 million for, to quote the Khaleej Times: "...newspapers or the rest of media, or the employees of the same receiving aid or donation, or similar benefits from foreign entity without the permission of the Council; repeating publishing or launching press campaigns with bad faith, and after being warned by the Council, in a way that demerit the reputation of the country, or its foreign relations and contacts, or violates its public order, or distort its national identity; publishing news that mislead the public opinion, in a way that harm the national economy of the country; carrying false news with knowledge; violating the conditions and restrictions stipulated for practising media activities governing the licence in regard."
The law would be enforced through the courts and not by the National Media Council (NMC), which drafted it. Journalists and editors alike have expressed dismay at the lack of clarity in the law. The editorial in today's The National makes the point: "Yet the new press law, approved yesterday by the FNC and sent to the cabinet for ratification, is unclear about what a newspaper can be punished for, and how it defines whether a newspaper has published information damaging to the country’s reputation or economy. The financial system should react to just the kind of information we print in our business pages every day. And if we are not distributing information that influences the choices people make in the marketplace, then we are not doing our job."
As far as I can see, the law makes no reference to the 'e-world' and remains firmly rooted in the idea that 'the media' is content produced by licensed entities that squash ink onto dead trees and that would be held to account according to the terms of their trade license.
Where does that leave someone writing a blog, commenting on a forum or posting up to You Tube? Where does it leave the UAE's fast-growing band of Twitterers or the groups of unhappy residents airing their grievances online? Where does it leave someone posting a comment to a blog, tagging a photo, founding a snarky Facebook group (like this or this!) or publishing an e-book?
It leaves us all relatively unsure of quite where we stand, that's where, with a court system that has no provision in law whatever for online activity, a judiciary that is unlikely to be trained or cogniscent of online systems and a minimum fine of Dhs 50,000. Oh, and that's assuming that a 'blogger' will be treated as a 'journalist' and not just an unlicensed entity.
In short, I suspect it rather leaves us all, journalists and others, exactly where we were in 1980, except that now we (possibly) can't go to prison - until, of course, we can't find Dhs 1 million and then we'll presumably be banged up anyway for defaulting on the fine.
BTW, I am mildly surprised that none of our media have pressed the point about the media law and how the National Media Council views the online world. It's really quite important, chaps...