Sharjah: There is no censorship of books of any kind at UAE book fairs, a senior official told the third Arab Publishers Conference in Sharjah on Tuesday.

Ebrahim Al Abed, adviser to the chairman of the National Media Council (NMC), also said the UAE never rejects constructive criticism, even if it is about politics.

Al Abed, who founded the Emirates News Agency (WAM) in 1977, was speaking as a panellist in the session titled ‘Freedom of Expression=Freedom to Publish’.

He pointed out that UAE publishers are sometimes stricter than UAE officials in self-censoring content, adding that the country fully supports freedom of speech. The only exceptions, Al Abed added, are defamation and matters “that are far away from any values of [UAE] society”.

The session was debating whether freedom of publishing is absolute and universal, where the limits should apply and who should apply them.

“In the UAE, we are proud to say that our book fairs in Sharjah and Abu Dhabi, with all the books arriving here, are not censored at all. In the [NMC] and Ministry of Information, we have direct instructions: No censorship of any book that arrives here,” Al Abed, who is a former director-general of the NMC, said.

“In the UAE, we don’t reject an evaluation, be it constructive political criticism … I always call on publishers, saying ‘you are responsible — like we [officials] are — about your content’.”

However, he stressed that the concept of freedom was not absolute or universal across all countries, but rather relative and subject to the social structure of each country.

“With respect to all those in support of unlimited freedom, I think there should be disciplines and regulations … Using freedom to insult others is not freedom. Other than that, everyone should use freedom in the context of his country and culture.”

Al Abed said the freedom to publish should never be used to malign or target a group of people, regardless of their background. Other panellists also agreed that freedom of publishing should be curtailed if used for “inciting hate crimes”.

He added that in the UAE, “we have general guidelines” regulating content, with most publishers using their discretion on what is suitable for publication. Laws, on the other hand, are used to enforce bans on defamation or pornography, among other illegal content, according to Al Abed. “In content regulations, we are continually developing and upgrading. We are in a prosperous period for publishing,” he said.

The session was moderated by Emirati activist and writer Shaikh Sultan Soud Al Qasimi. Among the audience was Shaikha Budoor Bint Sultan Al Qasimi, founder and patron of Emirates Publishers Association.