The freedom of the press is a crucial component of almost every country. The press serves as a conduit for information and the latest news for people. Additionally, the press can be seen as a link between the government and the people, helping politicians better understand how their actions are perceived. Nowadays, the freedom of the press is even more vital due to the escalation of political relations and environmental problems. Due to the limited freedom of speech, citizens of such countries can live in a bubble, where they are given only a particular amount of information that was filtered. Within the context of the UAE, the freedom of the press might be considered somewhat ambiguous due to contradictions of reality with official documents and legislation.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a worldwide accepted form of fundamental human rights. According to Article 19, “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression” (United Nations, n.d., para.29). This implies exercising the ability to retrieve the information from the press, “regardless of frontiers” (United Nations, n.d., para.29). Additionally, every individual must have the right to share their opinion without detrimental consequences or punishments.
As for the United Arab Emirates, the country is placed 119 in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index, indicating that freedom of speech is seriously limited in the nation (International Center for Justice and Human Rights, n.d.). Moreover, the country’s competitiveness rises, but its happiness level becomes lower (UAE ranking, n.d.). Though Articles 30 and 31 in the Emirati Constitution do ensure freedom of speech and expression, stating that these rights should not be limited, there are still contradictions (Oxford University Press, 2004). The government in the Emirates controls and restricts the national press and social network platforms. Most prominent reporters, academics, and civil rights campaigners have been barred from visiting the country or were punished and jailed for exercising their right to freedom of speech publicly or privately.
While some authorities of a few countries allow the freedom of speech and press on paper and punish journalists covertly, the United Arab Emirates has a clear position on the freedom of media. The evidence can be seen from several laws, which clearly restrict the rights to express one’s opinion or speak of the authorities in a derogatory manner. The press of the UAE is governed by Federal Law No. 15 of 1980 on Press and Publication, which is amongst the most stringent regulations in the Arabic countries (International Center for Justice and Human Rights, n.d.). The regulation allows for control and the prior distribution of national and foreign articles in the region. Furthermore, the legislation criminalizes criticism of the government, its affiliates, royal families, or national leaders.
Aside from controlling the press, the authorities control the social media platforms. For example, the Federal Legal Decree No. 5 of 2012 on addressing cybersecurity was utilized to bolster the harsh regulatory suppression of press freedom (Oxford University Press, 2004). This very limiting regulation has a severe impact on journalism since it prohibits the publishing or broadcast of material, news, or photos that are considered to jeopardize the safety and its more significant objectives or interfere with civil order. It also provides for unusual and jail punishments if it is violated. According to Article 29, undermining the prestige of the Government, its structures, leaders, and officials carries the same penalty.
In order to control various social media platforms and press, the government of the United Arab Emirates established an agency. The National Media Council (NMC), an agency founded in 2006, monitors the press and published material. Its duty is to either approve or restrict publication permissions and provide credentials to reporters (International Center for Justice and Human Rights, n.d.). Since its members are selected by the head of state, the NMC cannot be considered an entirely separate entity.
It is vital to mention the consequences of not abiding by the rules. Authorities in the UAE have a history of arresting numerous journalists, be it foreign or local journalists. Furthermore, the Emirati administration deploys remote monitoring on reporters in accordance with the aforementioned 2012 Cybercrime legislation in order to prosecute them in case of wrongdoing (International Center for Justice and Human Rights, n.d.). What is more, journalists are not the only ones arrested and imprisoned against their will.
Tayseer Al-Najjar, a 43-year-old Jordanian correspondent who worked in the UAE as a columnist for the national paper, Dar, published in Abu Dhabi, was jailed in 2015. The reason was the post of the journalist on social media, judging the federal system and leaders and their interference in Gaza (Staff, 2016). Al-Najjar was relocated to the al Wathba jail after being held in solitary confinement for several months and displaying symptoms of maltreatment (Staff, 2016). Since then, he has been imprisoned without being indicted or prosecuted for any crime.
Another situation happened in 2021 and is described by the newspaper Arab News. According to the newspaper, the comments about the UAE-Iraq football game were leaked. The result is the imprisonment of the journalist since his remarks were perceived as “harming the public interest and provoking hate speech” (Journalist imprisoned over leaked UAE-Iraq pre-game comments, 2021, para.2). Though the feed was hacked, the journalist will have to pay thousands of dollars in fines and might face up to five years in prison.
However, this is not an isolated case, and there are more situations of people being detained and imprisoned in the UAE. For example, 30 individuals of various nationalities were arrested and jailed in January 2014 for sharing classified material regarding national safety, as well as the establishment of an unregistered group and relations with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (International Center for Justice and Human Rights, n.d.). Anas Fouda, a reporter from Egypt, was imprisoned in 2013 without accusations or reason and held in a hidden location for more than a month before being repatriated to Egypt (International Center for Justice and Human Rights, n.d.). While these cases are known, there might be even more cases of journalists who were killed or are missing.
Hence, freedom of speech is vital for healthy cooperation between the authorities and the press, which in turn helps to convey various material and messages to the community. While the United Nations perceive the freedom of press and expression to be one of the fundamental rights, some countries have decided to control the media and restrict the fundamental rights. Additionally, though the UAE Consitution states that human rights should not be violated and individuals must exercise the freedom of speech without consequences, the reality is different. As seen from the examples, many journalists and other individuals are subject to punishments. The result of their judgemental remarks or basic mishaps is imprisonment or fines. The given issue is essential nowadays since it is a fundamental right and allows for society’s progress and development.
Journalist imprisoned over leaked UAE-Iraq pre-game comments. (2021). Arab News. Web.
Oxford University Press. (2004). United Arab Emirates’s constitution of 1971 with amendments through 2004. Constitute.
International Center for Justice and Human Rights. (n.d.). Report on the situation of journalists in the UAE. United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner. Web.
Staff, M. (2016). UAE holds reporter for five months without charge over Facebook post. Middle East Eye. Web.
UAE ranking. (n.d.). United Arab Emirates Ministry of Foreign Affairs & International Cooperation. Web.
United Nations. (n.d.). Universal declaration of human rights. Web.