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The press in the United Arab Emirates is as vibrant as the country’s economy, with 11 national dailies, six of them in English and five in Arabic. The Emirates like to be seen as particularly welcoming to foreign media, particularly in the Dubai Media City. Foreign journalists can work with far less interference than in other countries of the Persian Gulf.
A new press law, designed to replace the law of 1980, was adopted by the Federal National Council on 20 January 2009 after a prolonged debate. If passed in its present form it could constitute a serous setback to press freedom in the UAE and the media has raised strong objections. It has been awaiting the signature of the president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan, since January 2009.
Although the draft law abolishes prison sentences for journalists and gives them the right to protect their sources of information, it also entails numerous restrictions on press freedom. The government would be able to decide who is able to work as a journalist - editors, reporters and correspondents. It would also have a large measure of control over which media is authorised to work in the country, with the power to suspend licences for newspapers, radio and television, even for minor breaches of the law.
Moreover, the dropping of criminal proceedings against journalists would at the same time mean strengthening of civil proceedings with the risk of incurring heavy fines, hanging a kind of Sword of Damocles over the media. Journalists could be in danger of being sued for “denigrating” members of the government or the royal family and face fines that could go as high as 5,000,000 dirhams (1,034,000 euros). While those who publish “dishonest” news that could “mislead public opinion” and “harm the country’s economy”, could be sentenced to pay fines of up 500,000 dirhams (103,400 euros). Two French magazines, Jeune Afrique and Afrique Magazine were banned from newsstands on 5 April 2009 after the information ministry in Abu Dhabi ruled that they carried articles that were offensive. The incriminating issue of Jeune Afrique had published a report headlined “Muslims and sex”. The magazine cover featured a photograph of a woman with a bare back. The authorities subsequently banned the April issue of Afrique Magazine that carried a report by Akram Belkaid headlined “Dubai, end of the dream” about the financial and political difficulties now being experienced by the emirate of Dubai.
The British newspaper The Sunday Times was not distributed in Dubai on 29 November 2009, over the publication of a cartoon, seen by the authorities as “insulting” which showed the emirate’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, drowning in an ocean of debt, headlined “Dubai’s dream is sinking”.
Also since 2008, The United Arab Emirates has joined Reporters Without Borders’ list of “countries under surveillance” in relation to free expression on the Internet, despite its adoption in 2006 of an electronic press code. The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) has started carrying out filtering to try to control the content of online publications, blocking websites without reason. An Internet user can be imprisoned for “opposition to Islam”, “insult to any religion recognised by the state” or “contravening family values and principles”, under articles 15 and 20 of the law on cyber-crime. Owner of the website Hetta.com, Inas al Bourini, and his editor Ahmed Mohammed bin Gharib, were on 7 September fined 20,000 dirhams (3,694 euros) for “defaming”, “insulting” and “humiliating” the state-run Abu Dhabi Media Company. It followed the posting of an article on 4 May 2009, headlined “Abu Dhabi TV: a UAE television by name only” in which the journalists exposed “official corruption and “embezzlement” within the company.
Several websites are blocked in Dubai, particularly those dealing with human rights, prisons, the royal family and freedom of expression. This is the list: http://www.emarati.katib.org/node/52
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