Sunday, 17 January 2010

No Comment

WASHINGTON - AUGUST 07:  The statue of 'Author...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

The Hetta e-magazine court case (reported by Gulf News 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’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.
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alexander... said...

If you came here to leave something defamatory to see if I'd delete it, I thought of it first. Nyah Nyah.

Anonymous said...

I just feel sad for the U.A.E...

They want to become an economic and cultural leader, but they don't know that it's more than a few NASDAQ deals and a tall building here and there...

Dubai Jazz said...

I wonder which comment was it that made the censors unhappy?

There seem to be hundreds of comments there...

samuraisam said...

It's alarming in that the site isn't hosted on a .ae domain and it is unclear whether it is actually even a UAE business.

In any case there have been similar cases within the UAE in the past regarding forum posts etc.

Also, as far as I can tell that site doesn't have any kind of policy towards commenting (i.e. what your post is your own responsibility)

It also doesn't have any method for reporting 'bad' comments that I can tell and it also doesn't even have time stamped comments. The date stamping doesn't even work on some browsers.

Eliot Beer said...

This isn't substantially different from UK law: in Britain, you can sue the person who wrote or spoke the defamatory statement, AND any persons or organisations that "repeated" the libel - ie, published it.

If you think about it from a weasel-minded lawyer-y sort of viewpoint, a comment underneath an article is effectively a continuation of the article above - and as it all appears on a site owned by the publisher, it's reasonable to expect the publisher to make sure ALL content on its site adheres to reasonable standards of accuracy, balance, fairness, etc.

Granted, in the UK, the courts would probably be unimpressed by a claimant demanding damages who hadn't first asked the media owner to remove the comment, etc, but still.

Sod fixing UAE law - the sooner we do something about Mr Justice Eady and his increasingly terrifying judgements, the better...

Mita said...

Scary stuff - this is indirect censorship and that is definitely saddening!

lucias george said...

Surely the editor should just have claimed he was under the influence of drugs administered by foreign business partners who aren't there to represent themselves.

Anonymous Afghani said...

^ comment of the day

Anonymous said...

can somebody post a link to the original article? It has been removed from "Hetta".

What bothers me is that what is being said in the article is neither exaggerated nor falsified. People of the Gulf and Arabs in general feel estranged by their governments and the rapid modernization destroying the social and environmental fabric of their lives.

Arabic is seldom spoken in these countries, Arabs are a minority and the education system, among other things, is in shambles.

What Arabia has become is a testament that oil, not religion or the belief system, is the biggest curse we have had to endure in our history.

We should have kept all the wells sealed. Maybe then we would have had a better life.

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