New press law not only obstacle to free reporting in UAE

Posted Jan 24, 2009 by Oliver Pearce
As the credit crunch begins to bite in the Gulf, the UAE passed a law on Tuesday imposing restrictions on information that is harmful to the economy. But legislation is not the only barrier to the development of an independent domestic media.
The new law replaces a previous version, passed in 1980, which allowed imprisonment of journalists for insulting the ruling family or the nation. Instead of prison, journalists now face fines ranging from $13,600 to $272,000. They will also be protected from pressure to reveal their sources.
Despite these improvements Western media experts and organisations remain unconvinced. Frank Kane, a former business editor of the London based Observer newspaper was quoted by the Wall Street Journal as saying:
"The new laws do nothing to advance the cause of press freedom in the U.A.E."
Meanwhile Paris based Reporters Without Borders, a media freedom watchdog, said that the new law raises concerns about media freedoms in the UAE.
UAE officials defended the new law, which must still be ratified by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi, saying that among other things it protects the local economy from “false information” as well as the self-interests of media groups and journalists.
More telling was the reaction from local media, in particular an editorial in the Abu Dhabi based The National newspaper – paid for and supported by the Abu Dhabi government and widely seen as a mouthpiece, it has spent millions hiring experienced Western journalists and the former editor of a major UK national newspaper – which laid out several crucial issues:
“[the new law] is unclear about what a newspaper can be punished for, and how it defines whether a newspaper has published information damaging to the country’s reputation or economy. The financial system should react to just the kind of information we print in our business pages every day. And if we are not distributing information that influences the choices people make in the marketplace, then we are not doing our job.
As it is, the law does not remove editors from an a priori position of liability. An ambiguous law has the effect of sending a message to editors and newspaper owners that they might always be in default of an ambiguous code. The effect will be to promote anxiety and self-censorship among editors and reporters to the detriment of the national project.
Previously expected to withstand the global economic crisis, the UAE has been hit hard by falling oil prices, credit problems and a fall in real estate activity - one its economic pillars. Local and international firms have laid off thousands of workers, further hampering business, and the two national stock exchanges, the DFM and ADX, fell 72 percent and 47.5 percent respectively in 2008.
The country has also been rocked by scandals involving some of its most senior business figures, while questions remain over its economic openness: it ranks 54th in the 2009 Index of Economic Freedom, behind all but one of its Gulf rivals.
It hardly needs mentioning that a free press is a crucial foundation to an open and transparent society, based on the rule of law and democratic principles, even if the latter ideas will take longer to mature in light of local customs and security issues.
It is even more important to allow greater transparency and trust building in business; imagine if the Wall Street Journal or New York Times were prevented from reporting Enron or the Madoff scandal for fear of causing investor panic, or the BBC from breaking the Northern Rock story to prevent a run on the bank.
While self-censorship undoubtedly impedes the reporting of certain stories in the local press, of far greater concern for media watchers in the UAE and other Gulf states is the over-reliance on PR for news, and a lack of healthy competition among publications, which means that many published stories are not critically evaluated or, in many cases, not even covered.
Another issue surrounds the role of international media groups, which have flocked to the UAE, in particular Dubai to establish a regional presence in one of the many media free zones.
Good as it is that foreign media groups are to be exempt from these new restrictions, why should there be one rule for foreign firms, and another one for local groups? Such exemptions are counterproductive and only inhibit the vital development of local press skills that can mature alongside gradual introduction of democratic principles in the UAE.