In his interview with CNN on December 5, His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, answered a question about whether the press in the UAE was really free.
"As long as [journalists] don't say something wrong about a person or whatever it is, they can say whatever they want," he responded. "… As long as you don't step on somebody else, then you are free to do what you like."
These wise remarks perfectly encapsulate the ideal environment for journalism. Reporters should be able to freely report the news, but they must take care to not injure the reputation of others by reporting untrue (i.e., "wrong") information.
Indeed, the idea of reporting freely, but avoiding defamation is a widely held value for journalists and the media laws that govern their behaviour. Most developed nations feature media laws that protect journalists from harassment so they may do their jobs. But these countries also allow for penalties for journalists who publish information that's untrue and damages a person or entity's reputation.
However, the UAE's current legal framework doesn't provide these protections afforded to journalists in other developed nations.
The UAE's media laws are set by the 1980 Press and Publishing Act. This law was authored in a totally different media environment — long before Al Jazeera and Twitter — and at a time when the country wasn't nearly as mature as today. The law features incredibly onerous restrictions on press freedoms, many of which are no longer enforced in the modern UAE.
For instance, Article 76 of the 1980 law prohibits the "blemishing the president of an Arab, Islamic or any other friendly state" and Article 77 prohibits the defamation of "Arabs and their civilisation". Given these prohibitions, news outlets in the UAE reporting on the repressive governments and ignoble leaders of Tunisia, Libya and Syria have consistently violated the letter of the law.
Other sections of the 1980 UAE law create a murky understanding of the freedom of journalists to openly report on the news.
Article 81, for example, prohibits publication of news that "causes damage to the national economy". Given this ambiguous direction, any reporting on negative business news such as a financial loss at a public company or a dip in tourism numbers could be technically illegal.
In the broadest declaration in the law, Article 84 prohibits reporters from "maligning a public official" or anyone "assigned to perform a public job". A journalist exposing problems with a government agency could easily violate this provision even if the report is truthful and accurate. The 1980 law also allows for the jailing of journalists for various offences, but a decree by Shaikh Mohammad in 2007 effectively ended this practice. However, the official law has never been updated.
Authorities attempted to revise the law with the creation of a draft media law in 2009. However, that draft law still featured many restrictions on reporting, such as fines for "disparaging public officials" or "harming the nation's image".
Following complaints of journalists and critics, the draft press law was never enacted. So, officially the UAE still operates under the archaic 1980 law, leaving journalists to operate in a murky playing field.
In order to create a press environment in which the journalists can operate without unnecessary obstruction, authorities may want to update the media law. Specifically endorsing the concept of a free press and removing language about journalistic prohibitions should help alleviate the ambiguity of the profession.
To ensure that officials and others aren't defamed, authorities could rely solely upon civil libel lawsuits. In most developed nations, parties who feel they've been defamed can file a lawsuit against the offending news outlets. Judge or jury verdicts of large financial awards provide the necessary incentive to journalists to report the news truthfully and accurately. In the UAE, defamation is still a criminal offence — meaning an aggrieved party can take their complaints to the police. The potential threat of a criminal complaint has a chilling effect on robust journalism.
The benefits of a free press have been widely documented. By accurately reporting the news, citizens gain an understanding of their local, national and international issues, while journalists can also serve as an independent monitor to those in positions of power. The Nobel Prize-winning economist, Dr. Amartya Sen, famously notes that no country with a free press has ever endured mass starvation such as the 1943 Bengal famine suffered under repressive British censorship.
The UAE would benefit if the media laws were updated to create the fullest protections for journalists while supporting a civil court system that ensures they practice their craft responsibly.
Dr. Matt J. Duffy teaches media law at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi. He is currently writing the book Media Law of the United Arab Emirates for the International Encyclopedia of Media Law.