The United Arabs Emirates is one of the richest countries within the Gulf region. The endowment of the country has helped it to come up with developments in many sector of the economy, which is significant for the lives of the citizens. However, this does not mean that the country is free from problems, because several sectors have been affected due to the lack of free media and a general tendency to limit the freedom of speech for the citizens in this country. It is clear that several benefits cannot be realized if the freedom aspect of press is suppressed and as such, things like corruption and discrimination, among others, will not be brought out into the public attention if the freedom of speech and press are suppressed. The UAE as one of the countries within the Gulf region can be identified as having many tight rules regarding freedom of speech and freedom of the press. This is similar to other countries within the region such as Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Oman. The reason for the trend of having a tight control on the aspects of freedom of speech and media could be related to the rule of monarchies that carry a lot of influence over many apects within the society. The series of uprisings in the Arab signify that the citizens within these countries are actually tired of the continued suppression of their rights, and it is hoped that the UAE will take lessons from the same and undertake drastic changes to enhance the freedom of speech and media, but that has not been the case. The discussion in this paper covers this aspect of freedom of speech and media in the UAE while drawing a comparison of the same with other countries in the Gulf region as well as counties in the world that can be said to have fully embraced the issue of freedom of speech and media.
Freedom of speech and media in the UAE is threatened by the heavy fines and penalties that have been adopted in relation and extends even to alleged damage to personal reputation. It is important to note that these penalties are the result of dismal of truth as defense. In as much as truth is said to be a defense in cases dealing with defamation, truth is not considered as absolute defense in the UAE (Duffy, 2015). The reason for the existence of this situation is the failure of the media laws in this country to explicitly define the laws on defamation through proper wording, which could imply that truth is defense in defamation cases. In this case, when a journalist is faced with a case of defamation, there is a high likelihood that he/she may win the case in penal code but he/she will likely lose when the provision of media laws are considered.
The lack of interest by judges in these countries to undertake the analysis of laws is another reason that has affected the freedom of media in this country. For example, article 372 of the media laws of UAE mentions that truth may not be considered as defense in defamation cases. The article provides that any person who attributes to another person through public channels is subject to contempt or punishment. The impact of heavy penalties does not only affect the UAE as it can be established that nearly all the countries within the GCC have statutes in their laws that classify any misleading reporting on legal cases by journalist as a crime that is subject to heavy punishment (Duffy, n.d). As such, many of the journalists in these countries are fearful of reporting legal cases and only give the slightest facts about the same for the fear of being punished.
The freedom of speech and media in the UAE is limited through tight controls. This is especially the case with the domestic media. whose freedom is limited by the requirement that any time they have to broadcast or print anything, they should deposit the copies to the Ministry of Information to be approved. This and many other factors made the UAE score poorly on the ranking of countries in relation to media freedom by the San Frontières newspapers 2004 (Slaon, 2015). Freedom of speech is also limited under the law because the citizens are not allowed to publish any insult to Islam or the government. Furthermore, personal opinion that is contrary to the opinions held by the majority of the society is punishable in this country. The media as well as the citizens are not allowed to publish anything that concerns the confidential information of the government or the treaties made by the government until they are published by the official gazette of the government.
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The UAE can be said to have achieved a remarkable increase as far as the accessibility of the Internet is concerned. Despite this access, freedom of use of the Internet is also highly controlled by the state agency. Everything that people want to post online in the UAE has to be filtered through the Etisalat system and anything that is found to be contrary to religion or any contravening opinion leads to punishment. The cybercrime laws adapted by the United Arabs Emirates infringe on online users’ freedom. This is related to an incident that took place in 2013 when a group of people were persecuted for their alleged damage of the countries by posting a parody video on YouTube. Social sites such as Facebook, Twitter and You Tube had been cited as the only way through which the citizens of these countries could access insight into information and actions of the government that were not brought into the public’s attention because of the strict rules the government has instituted to govern some media organization. However, the UAE has also extended the control of these sites by making sure that the citizens that post such news in these sites are located and persecuted if they post any contradicting opinion on government, religion or information that is considered to be of confidential nature (Sakr, 2006).
This aspect is similar to all the GCC countries with the exception of Jordan because they have had the tendency to use the so-called cybercrime laws to target the speech of online speakers hence infringing on their rights. Similar to the persecution of UAE citizens behind the posting of the parody video on You Tube, blogger in Saudi Arabia was sentenced to prison in 2013 when he posted religious questions that seemed to be insulting Islam and the religious policy of Saudi Arabia (Slaon, 2015). Jordan had also followed the way of the other countries in coming up with unpopular laws targeting online speakers. However, the government of Jordan bowed to continued pressure and scaled back on the laws and regulations. In 2010, the Government amended its laws paving way for the removal of a very controversial article that had stipulated for heavy fines for the online distribution of information said to be of defamation. As such, the online speakers in Jordan can be said to be enjoying freedom of speech as compared to those UAE and the other GCC countries. It can be said that the freedom of speech and media is limited a lot in the UAE and the countries within the GCC region as compared to some countries within the European Union such as France. This brings in picture the freedom enjoyed by the media and individuals in France considering the Charlie Hebdon publication in which the cartoonists were free to come up with contradicting information, or information that in some way seemed to be questioning the Islamic religion (Faur, 2015). However, the people behind this publication did not face any punishment from the authorities because the constitution fully guaranteed that their freedom is protected.
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The UAE passed a very contagious law that limits the freedom of expression of the civilians and the media. The law passed stipulates that the media organizations that are considered to have disparaged senior government officers or the elite persons from the ruling class could face fines of up to 5000000 dirham which translates to about $1.4 million (Slaon, 2015). The laws also required media organizations to deposit a sizeable amount of money as security for fines likely to be charged and this amount according to the human rights watch acts as a barrier for small media organizations to enter into the industry hence the independency of media organizations was interfered with. The provisions of the new laws were not clear on the criteria standards to be used by the government in the process of giving license to media organizations. The impacts of the same was that the government had been given so much power in the determination of whom to award the licenses, and this could open the door for biasness in the whole process. The law also gave the government the power to revoke the licenses of newspapers and radio and TV stations for a slight non-compliance to the laws. In abuse of personal freedom of speech, the government was also given the freedom on regulations of the people that could be allowed to work as journalists hence a further infringement on the freedom of the press. Even though many citizens were opposed to this rules, the president of the UAE went ahead to sign them into law in 2010 hence affecting the freedom of speech by the media.
The freedom of the press to criticize the government is intolerable in the United Arabs Emirates. In 2014, the government was angered by the publication b y the Human Rights Watch that summarized the poor state of adherence to maintaining the freedom of speech by media organizations and individuals. The government had been cited in the report as having detained immigrant unlawfully and infringed on the rights of women. The media people and organizations that had tried to bring the issue in the public domain were indentified and punished accordingly. The government of UAE banned all the media organization within the country from publishing the reports and went ahead to publish a report on a state agency website that denounced the reports as being based on lies and not facts. In January 2014, the Government of UAE unexpectedly cancelled a press conference in Dubai claiming that the event had not obtained the permission from the government (Slaon, 2015). The Human Rights Watch clarified that this cancellation was due to the order by a very powerful government official and that the constitution did not have any of the provisions that required permits to be obtained before holding press conferences. This was a testament that criticism of the government is an aspect that the press in the UAE is not allowed to engage in.
Foreign journalists are not also spared in the UAE if they work for UAE-based media organizations. Such journalists’ freedom to write about sensitive issue touching on religion, politics and foreign alliance are highly censored (Clark, 2007). The UAE maintains an initiative duped the OpenNet Initiative, which works to block sites that it deems to be publishing content contrary to the politics and religion of the country (“Internet filtering in the United Arab Emirates in 2004-2005”, 2005). Since its inception, the initiative has continuously blocked a number of sites and citizens in these countries are advised to keep off from trying to access such sites. The use of electronic mail is also closely monitored so as to filter sharing of information. As such, the UAE government has restricted the use of email and messaging services that are encrypted. In order for media organizations to survive the harsh treatment from the government, they have to rely on the official Emirates news Agency (WAM) on how to cover the news and the content of the same (Slaon, 2015). This shows that the media organizations have no freedom to air the news as they would like. Another worrying aspect is that most newspapers in the United Arabs Emirates are owned by the government or have some affiliation with government officers. Dubai Media Incorporate and Arab Media Group are solely owned by the government while the Gulf Today has strong ties to government and is biased in its activities.
From the discussion above, it can be established that freedom of speech and media is limited within the UAE. The continued existence of this aspect is a result of the laws and interference of the government. The laws allow for close monitoring of speech on online platform as well as restricting the content that the media can cover. This aspect seems to be general order in the countries within the GCC region with the exception of Jordan that undertook to review its law in 2010. On the contrary, other countries of the world strictly adhere to freedom of speech and media as the example of France in Europe clearly elaborates. It is hoped that the UAE government will change its stance on the restriction of the freedoms of speech and media because of the increasing pressure from campaigns.
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