01/20/2008 07:08 PM | By Samir Salama and Bassam Za’za’, Staff Reporters
Dubai: The UAE fared well in press freedom last year and a brighter future is anticipated, with a new law being finalised to create media that is less restricted by government policies.
The country already enjoys a fair amount of freedom of the press, emerging as regional leader in allowing freedom and pluralism in its growing media. The government has not placed any major restrictions on press freedom, with the exception of certain limitations on issues pertaining to security and preserving the country’s moral and religious values, say officials and editors of newspapers.
They did admit, however, that checks are made to safeguard the privacy of people and prevent any libel.
Those experts consider self-censorship a major impediment to the freedom of the media, with editors and academicians demanding that officials show more transparency and share information with journalists.
The UAE’s leaders have encouraged journalists and media personalities to perform their role without fear of punishment or obstruction, said Abdul Rahman Mohammad Al Owais, Minister of Culture, Youth and Community Development.
This has put the UAE at the forefront of countries in the region as regards freedom of the press, an analysis that has been affirmed by the Reporters Without Borders 2007 Press Freedom Index.
The UAE was ranked 65 among 169 countries, ahead of all other Middle Eastern countries except Kuwait, at 63. It jumped 12 spots compared to 2006, when its ranking stood at 77.
Freedom of the press in the UAE, however, faced a major setback last year, after a Dubai court sentenced an editor and reporter from a local English-language daily to two-month jail terms for libel, for publishing a news story that it deemed false.
The matter caused controversy in the UAE media and the ensuing debate questioned the freedom of the press. However, His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, quickly came to the rescue. He gave instructions to the relevant authorities that journalists cannot be imprisoned for performing their duties.
Shaikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Foreign Minister and Chairman of the National Media Council, said that there were measures, other than imprisonment, that may be taken against journalists who break press and publication laws. He said that Shaikh Mohammad had also instructed the Cabinet to speed up the necessary steps on the issuance of a new publication law in light of the amendments made by the National Media Council after consulting authorities.
Mohammad Yousuf, Chairman of the Journalists’ Association, said the improvement in press freedom in the country was noticeable and the proposed media law will have clauses that will make such an improvement constitutional.
“The situation has become much better since the establishment of the association in 2004. Last year witnessed the lowest number of cases against journalists compared with previous years,” Yousuf said.
He added that the way journalists were treated in courts and at police stations had improved drastically.
Official sources said that the proposed media law will provide a positive climate for freedom of the press.
“The law would ensure independence of journalism and would make government intervention in journalism a thing of the past. It considers the right to information as one of the prerogatives of journalism,” a source said.
The proposed law states that violations such as libel would not be considered a criminal act. Last year also saw a major initiative taken by editors of local newspapers, who signed a charter of honour and code of ethics. This code has 26 articles which define the rules and ethics of the profession. It calls for respecting the truth and the right of the public to have access to true and accurate information. It also provides for respect for privacy of individuals, demands that journalists commit themselves to the principle that the accused is innocent until proven guilty. It calls against the targeting of religious beliefs of individuals and for respecting law and order. It also calls for upholding freedom, equality, and ethics.
World opinion is divided on the importance of having a free press, according to a poll conducted for the BBC World Service. 11,344 people from 14 countries were interviewed.
56% Thought that freedom of the press was very important to ensure a free society
40% Said it was more important to maintain social harmony and peace, even if it meant curbing the press’s freedom to report news truthfully
70% of people in North America and Western Europe put freedom first
60% of people in Venezuela, Kenya and South Africa put freedom first
48% of people in India, Singapore and Russia supported controls over the press to ensure peace and stability
40% of people in those countries expressed the view that press freedom was more important
81% of Kenyans think their press is free to report the truth
41% of Mexicans and 72% of Indians thought their media were free
36% of people in Singapore think their press is free
29% of people in the United States, Britain and Germany, thought their media did a good job in reporting news accurately.
Overall, publicly-run news organisations were viewed slightly more negatively than ones run for profit.
Only in Egypt, Germany, Russia and Singapore did people rate the public media more than privately-owned media companies.
– Source: BBC World Service