Freedom of the Press 2008 - United Arab Emirates

Status: Not Free
Legal Environment: 23 (of 30)
Political Environment: 23 (of 40)
Economic Environment: 22 (of 30)
Total Score: 68 (of 100)
(Lower scores = freer)

Despite high-profile attempts to lure international media outlets to Dubai, concentration of media ownership and restrictive legal provisions continued to constrain press freedom in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2007. While the constitution of the UAE provides for freedom of speech and of the press, in practice, the government uses its judicial and executive powers to restrict those rights. UAE Federal Law No. 15 of 1980 for Printed Matter and Publications, which covers all aspects of the media, is considered one of the most restrictive in the Arab world. The law gives the government control over content and prohibits criticism of government, rulers and ruling families, and friendly governments. The law also subjects all publications to state licensing and stipulates that journalists can be prosecuted under the penal code. Press law in the UAE authorizes the state to censor both domestic and foreign publications prior to distribution. In September 2007, two newspaper employees of the Gulf Times were sentenced to two months in jail on defamation charges after reporting on a local story. In a positive development, however, the conviction was later reversed on appeal, as the judges were apparently influenced by statements made by the Vice President that imprisonment should no longer be punishment for violations of the press law.

Though there were no physical attacks against journalists reported in 2007, reporters in the UAE suffer from several forms of intimidation and harassment. While native journalists often face warnings and threats in response to pushing the limits of permissible coverage, non-citizen journalists, who account for more than 90 percent of those working in the UAE, face harsher measures, including termination and deportation. Extreme forms of self-censorship are widely practiced, particularly with regard to topics such as local politics, culture, religion, friendly governments, or any other subject deemed by the government to be politically or culturally sensitive. The only place where an amount of press freedom exists is the Dubai Media City (DMC), a zone where foreign media outlets that produce content intended for audiences outside the country operate relatively freely. Media outlets and journalists based in the DMC are regulated by the Technology and Media Free Zone Authority. While such outlets generally focus solely on international issues and refrain from covering local concerns, they too are subject to the 1980 law and penal code whenever they transgress in their coverage of local issues.

All media outlets are either owned by the government or closely affiliated with it. Privately owned newspapers, such as the Arabic daily Al-Khaleej and its sister, the English-language Gulf News, are heavily influenced by the government. Most major papers receive government subsidies and rely heavily on the official UAE news agencies for content. Almost all Arabic language broadcast media targeting the domestic audience is state-owned, and provides only the official view on local issues. In 2005, the government of Dubai formed the Arab Media Group to operate as its media arm. The group publishes two newspapers and controls two local radio stations. Even though it promises a freer and more professional outlook, the group still operates under the 1980 Press Law.

The UAE is considered a regional leader in its ability to censor the internet. Over 38 percent of the population uses the internet, but the only internet service provider in the country is owned and operated by a government corporation, the Emirates Telecommunications Corporation (Etisalat). Both high-speed and dial-up users find themselves directed to a proxy server that blocks materials deemed inconsistent with the "religious, cultural, political, and moral values of the country" and maintains a list of banned websites. In January, the government enacted a sweeping 2006 Information and Privacy Cybercrime Law. The law criminalizes use of the internet to commit a range of crimes – including violating political, social, and religious norms – and subjects offenders to prison terms and fines.

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