here in case you hadn't heard of it) is a worrying precedent.
A judgement against Hetta (Hetta is a headscarf or Keffiyeh) has been reached by the Abu Dhabi Court of Appeals in the defamation case lodged by the Abu Dhabi Media Company (the owners, interestingly, of a number of media outlets, including newspaper The National) . The case centres around a comment made on an article by a reader. This is the important bit, the article linked here (you'll have to spikka da Arabi) attacking Abu Dhabi Media Company's hiring policies, is not the issue - the alleged defamation came as a reader-submitted comment posted against the article.
That precedent would potentially mean that any online site (including, *gulp*, blogs) in the UAE would be held legally liable for any content posted by commenters to the site. That would have an immediate and drastic effect on any form of open or free speech (no, I'm not interested in arguments about how little of that there is). It would also make us all moderators, or 'censors' of content posted on our sites by the public.
“The decision taken in this case against an independent news website is clearly disproportionate,” Reporters Without Borders said in a statement, in full here. “Why close an entire website for a month when only a few comments posted by readers were at issue and only its editor was being blamed? And before going to court, why didn’t the plaintiff ask Hetta.com’s management to remove the comments in a spirit of conciliation?”
Why indeed. And a media owner, at that.
Hetta's lawyer is taking the case to the top, a final appeal is to be filed with the Federal Supreme Court, according to GN, so the fat lady hasn't sung. Let's hope she's got a reasonable tune when she does.
If you add to this the result of the defamation case in the UK against Gulf News a while ago, you also have a precedent that anyone who has business interests in the UAE and considers themselves defamed in the UAE by any commenter on any global medium accessible here, they could possibly launch a case in the UAE court. Far fetched? Oh, do I hope so.
This alarming judgement, by the way, comes a week after Jordan's decision to apply its press and publishing law to online activity. That law, similarly, would hold bloggers and other online sites responsible for user comments made on articles - treating them effectively as letters to the Letters Page of a newspaper - an editorial responsibility.
But here - this is possibly the really interesting bit that affects millions rather than a raggle-taggle bunch of bloggers and online publishers - we reach the edge of gibbering insanity. If I'm responsible in law for what you write on my blog, am I just as responsible for a comment you leave on my Facebook page?
Both of these moves are subject to a final decision, so there's a chance for reason to prevail. But it's never been more likely that those cautious little green shoots of commentary and dialogue could well be snuffed out in the Middle East.