Freedom of the Press
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United Arab Emirates
Press Freedom Score (0 = best, 100 = worst)
Legal Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Political Environment(0 = best, 40 = worst)
Economic Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
While the constitution of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) provides, at least in principle, for freedom of speech and of the press, in practice the government uses its judicial and executive branches to restrict those rights. UAE Federal Law No. 15 of 1980 for Printed Matter and Publications, which extends to all aspects of the media, including book publishing, is considered one of the toughest in the Arab world. The law gives the government control over content and prohibits any criticism of government, rulers and ruling families, and friendly governments. The law also subjects all publications to state licensing; journalists are forbidden from leveling any criticism against authorities and can be prosecuted under the penal code. Press law in the UAE authorizes the state to censor both domestic and foreign publications prior to distribution. In 2006, the UAE abolished the Ministry of Information, the government’s arm of media control and censorship, and replaced it with the National Media Council. This council has the task of controlling and overseeing the press, enforcing media-related laws, issuing licenses, and approving editors. Both the larger press and private associations’ publications are censored by the government.
Journalists in the UAE suffer from several forms of intimidation. While native journalists usually face warnings and threats whenever the government feels they have crossed a line, non-citizen journalists, who account for more than 90 percent of all journalists in the UAE, face harsher measures, including termination and deportation. Extreme forms of self-censorship are widely practiced whenever journalists write or broadcast about topics such as politics, culture, religion, friendly governments, or any topic that the government could deem to be politically or culturally sensitive. The only place where an amount of press freedom exists is the much celebrated Dubai Media City (DMC), a zone where foreign media outlets that produce content intended for audiences outside the country operate relatively freely. Media outlets and journalists based in the DMC are regulated by the Technology and Media Free Zone Authority. While such outlets generally focus solely on international issues and refrain from covering any local concerns, they too are subject to the 1980 law and penal code whenever they transgress in their coverage of local issues. There were no physical attacks on the press in the UAE in 2006.
All media outlets are either owned outright by the government or closely affiliated with it. Privately owned newspapers, such as the Arabic daily Al-Khaleej and its sister, the English-language Gulf News, are heavily influenced by the government, which provides subsidies, and both rely heavily on the official UAE news agencies for content. All broadcast media, also solely state-owned, provide only the official view on local issues. In 2005, the government of Dubai formed the Arab Media Group to operate as its media arm. The group publishes two newspapers and controls two local radio stations. Even though it promises a freer and more professional outlook, the group is still operating under the 1980 Press Law. This concentration of media ownership in the hands of the government and its close business allies has hindered the country’s ability to practice freedom of speech and develop media independence. The close alliance between the few business owners and the ruling families makes any criticism of the government and its laws impossible.
Furthermore, the UAE is considered a regional leader in its ability to censor the internet. Thirty-five percent of the population uses the internet and the only internet service provider in the country is owned and operated by a government corporation, the Emirates Telecommunications Corporation (Etisalat). Both high-speed and dial-up users find themselves directed to a proxy server that blocks materials deemed inconsistent with the “religious, cultural, political, and moral values of the country” and that also maintains a list of banned websites and blocks users from accessing them. In January, the government enacted a sweeping Information and Privacy Cybercrime Law. The new law criminalizes use of the internet to commit a range of crimes—including violating political, social, and religious norms—and subjects offenders to prison terms and fines.