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)
Despite high-profile attempts to lure international media outlets to Dubai, concentration of media ownership and restrictive legal provisions continued to constrain press freedom in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2007. While the constitution of the UAE provides for freedom of speech and of the press, the government uses its judicial and executive powers to restrict those rights in practice. UAE Federal Law No. 15 of 1980 for Printed Matter and Publications regulates all aspects of the media and is considered one of the most restrictive press laws in the Arab world. The law authorizes the state to censor both domestic and foreign publications prior to distribution and prohibits criticism of the government, rulers and ruling families, and other friendly governments. Punishments under the 1980 law have included both fines and prison sentences. Journalists can also be prosecuted under the penal code. The National Media Council (NMC), which was created in 2006 and whose members are appointed by the president, is responsible for licensing all publications in addition to issuing press credentials to editors. According to the International Press Institute, editor Shima Kassiril Ganjadahran and journalist Mohsen Rashed of the Khaleej Times were each sentenced to two months in jail on libel charges on September 25, only to have their convictions overturned in an appeals court on November 8. Many speculated that the court’s decision was in direct response to a decree issued by UAE vice president and prime minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum on September 26 that called for the decriminalization of press offenses.
Although there were no reported physical attacks against journalists in 2007, reporters in the UAE suffered multiple forms of intimidation and harassment. Journalists native to the UAE often face warnings and threats in response to pushing the limits of permissible media coverage, while noncitizen journalists, who account for more than 90 percent of those working in the UAE, face harsher measures, including termination and deportation. Extreme forms of self-censorship are widely practiced, particularly when covering issues such as local politics, culture, religion, or any other subject the government deems politically or culturally sensitive. The Dubai Media Free Zone (DMFZ), an area in which foreign media outlets produce print and broadcast material intended for audiences outside the country, is the only arena in which the press operates with relative freedom and is now home to bureaus of important media outlets such as Cable News Network, the British Broadcasting Corporation, and Agence France-Presse. Broadcast media outlets based in the DMFZ are regulated by the Technology and Media Free Zone Authority. While such outlets generally focus solely on international issues and refrain from covering local concerns, they too are subject to the 1980 Law for Printed Matter and Publications and the penal code, and beginning in March, all free zones must now obtain approval from the NMC before licensing any print or broadcast activities. Under pressure from the Pakistani government, the Dubai government shut down two of Pakistan’s most independent satellite channels that broadcast from Dubai in November when Pakistan declared a state of emergency. After much international criticism and protest, the two stations resumed broadcasting on November 30.
Media outlets in the UAE are either government owned or have close government affiliations. Privately owned newspapers such as the Arabic daily Al-Khaleej and its sister paper, the English-language Gulf News, are heavily influenced by the government. Most major papers receive government subsidies and rely predominantly on the official UAE news agencies for content. Almost all Arabic-language broadcast media that target the domestic audience are state owned and 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 perspective, the group still operates under the 1980 Law for Printed Matter and Publications. Satellite television is widespread and provides uncensored access to international broadcasts.
Over 38 percent of the UAE population used the internet in 2007. Nevertheless, the government censors web content, 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 maintains a list of banned websites and blocks material deemed inconsistent with the “religious, cultural, political, and moral values of the country.” In January 2006, the government enacted a sweeping Information and Privacy Cybercrime Law that 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. On August 8, Muhammad Rashed Shehhi, owner of the website majan.net, was sentenced in the emirate of Ras al-Khaima to one year in prison and a fine of 70,000 dirhams (US$19,000) for an anonymous comment posted on his site that criticized a government official. Khaled Alasely, a writer for the website, was also arrested, and on September 12, both Alasely and Shehhi were sentenced to 5 months in prison; Shehhi’s 5-month sentence was added to his original 12 months. On November 23, the full jail sentence on Shehhi was overturned, but he continued to face multiple charges stemming from other cases brought against the website during the year. The sentence against Alasely remained in place at year’s end.