UAE journalists fear fines, jail in new draft law
Dubai, April 13, 2009
A draft media law in the United Arab Emirates which would impose hefty fines for criticising the head of state has drawn rare public calls for the president to stop the bill.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Monday said the draft media law fell short of international free speech standards and appealed to the country's president to seek revisions.
The UAE's advisory Federal National Council (FNC) had approved the draft in January that sets fines of up to Dh5 million ($1.4 million) on the media for a series of infractions.
They include 'disparaging' president Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed or the rulers and deputies of any of the seven emirates that make up the UAE, as well as harming the national economy, the country's reputation or relations with foreign countries.
The bill now awaits cabinet and presidential approval in the Gulf Arab state, which does not have a parliament.
'The draft law in its current form is obscure and violates many freedoms, gains and basic rights, and hinders free media and newspaper work in the country,' a group of more than 100 civil society figures said in a petition to Sheikh Khalifa.
The UAE, the world's fifth largest oil exporter, has established itself as a trade and tourism centre. Most of its 4.5 million population are migrant labourers and professionals from Asia, Africa and Europe.
As the country developed following independence from Britain in 1972, its local Bedouin, fisher and trader population acquired few political rights.
Politics professor Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, a signatory to the petition, said the law gave too much power to the authorities to licence, regulate and close media.
'The UAE deserves a better law and better protection for writers and journalists,' he told Reuters.
Journalists have also criticised the draft, the result of several years of debate, for not stating clearly that they cannot be jailed and for allowing for closure of newspapers.
'It should say that a paper cannot be closed, whatever the infraction,' said Abdul-Hamid Ahmed, editor-in-chief of the English-language Gulf News daily.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Committee to Protect Journalists both criticised the draft.
'We feel the penalties are going to intimidate journalists and continue to cause self-censorship,' HRW researcher Samer Muscati told a news conference in Dubai on Monday.
International rights groups have often criticised Arab countries for fining and jailing journalists and creating an atmosphere of self-censorship.
But Najla Al-Awadhi, a member of the quasi-parliamentary FNC that approved the draft, defended the law saying the country had to protect itself from tensions that press coverage can cause.
'We are not trying to emulate the Western ideas of freedom of the press,' she said. 'We are a very young country in a very challenging region. We have neighbours that we get along with but also have some tough relationships, like Iran and Pakistan.'-Reuters