Journalists have nothing to fear: Director General, National Media Council

ABU DHABI - The criticism of a draft media law is unjustified as the new regulations promise to lift earlier restrictions and provide new freedoms to journalists in the UAE, the director general of the National Media Council said.

By Rahul Sharma, Editor

Published: Mon 9 Feb 2009, 10:39 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 9:37 AM

Ibrahim Al Abed told Khaleej Times in an exclusive interview that the new law not only scrapped jail terms for journalists, but also allowed them to withhold their sources in case they were asked to reveal names, besides encouraging free flow of information.

Excerpts from the interview.

Khaleej Times: The draft media law has some clauses on restrictions on economic reporting. Could you explain?
NMC DG: In the new draft law, there is an article, which says that dissemination of news that is misleading to the public in such a way that would harm the national economy.

Here, we are talking specifically about misleading news. How do we evaluate that? If there will be a problem, it will be the court that will decide and this applies to everything. I can’t take a decision. I can refer it to the court or he (the complainant) can refer it to the court as a normal citizen. So I can't take any action or decision unless somebody comes and complains.

KT: What do you consider misleading?
Several months ago there was a case here in Abu Dhabi. Somebody was putting advertisements in the newspapers about you pay a million, you get 20 million or 30 million. There was a complaint against him. The court decided to put him in jail. We found that he had already taken about Dh360 million from ordinary people.

Now, this is something that you can't keep quiet about and it happens to do with us. For the last three to four months, we have reports coming from Dubai and Abu Dhabi about the economic situation. Some are exaggerated, some are factual. Nobody put any complaints against these reports, neither from the public nor from the government.

Although the present law is still in force and the present law has 16 articles of taboos … We have never used it.

KT: So what you are saying is that in more than one way you are allowing media the freedom that it needs to be allowed. At the same time, you are very aware of the fact that there have to be certain boundaries.
NMC DG: Yes. These boundaries are so flexible and so wide. I don't recall that any journalist who wrote, whether in the local press or in the foreign press, has been even reprimanded or have been sent to court or have been fined or have been asked through his administration to fire him.
When there was this problem of these two people with Khaleej Times, Shaikh Mohammad himself interfered and issued his directive that no journalist should be put in jail. We have this in our (new) law. In our law we have no clause of imprisonment.

We have taken into consideration at least two main points in the (Journalists’) Association's draft. Number one, journalists and people working in the media, whether it is radio, or TV or electronic etc., should not be obliged to disclose their sources.

You know better, this is a very important step. They are ignoring it totally. It is not available in any Arab media.

Secondly, the government departments have to facilitate and provide flow of information and respond positively to the queries of the journalists of newspapers and also of radio and TV.
This is another important step. We tried to explain to the Federal National Council. These two items were introduced by the FNC based on the recommendations and proposals of the Journalists’ Association. We accepted that. This shows a lot of flexibility. We accepted and adopted them.

The other point that I would like to stress is that in the previous law we had 16 articles, in the present law we have three or four articles about things that should not be published.
In the present law, any decision taken by the National Media Council or by the Cabinet is open to appeal and it has to be decided by the court. Even if you take a decision, within 30 days you can appeal to the court and you can stop it.

KT: On what basis will the court take a position on the appeal? It will also have to look at a certain law. Which law will it look at?
NMC DG: You cannot put restrictions for the court or the judge. Nobody has the right to interfere with their work. We cannot interfere. When you are actually pushing things forward to another party, you are making it difficult for any person to take any decision against the Press. This is the one idea.

In some Arab countries, decisions are taken by the Ministry of Information of the country.

KT: What should the journalist worry about in the new draft?
NMC DG: Nothing. I am serious. Nothing. But, I do not consider a journalist to be a journalist if he spreads out a rumour. I do not consider a journalist to be a journalist if he wants to attack the President in an insulting way. And, I do not think that a journalist can be a journalist if he doesn't take into consideration the general culture of the country.

Ok, in the UK or in Germany you can put naked pictures, but here you can't. In France, they closed down Al Manar and Al Aqsa because they considered it to be within their national security or interest. A Danish paper attacked Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him). It was said this is freedom of expression. Can somebody express freely his point of view about the Holocaust? Tell me? Nobody can. This means that there are things that have to be taken into consideration.

Frankly speaking, and I can say it publicly and to everybody, there is nothing to worry about. There could have been things that you could worry about in the present law, but nobody touched it.

There is another point about the free zones. We consider them to be of special status. And we do not like to do anything that will infringe on that special status. That is why in the law we have a very general phrase which says that the Cabinet will issue regulations to make sure that there is some kind of coherence between their work and the general media policy.

KT: So, it means that there is definitely a differentiation between the free zones and others who have publications. Isn’t that unfair?
NMC DG: Yes. It is unfair. But we have a legal situation. The free zones are considered to be free zones and they work on the basis of certain laws that are not our laws.

KT: How can they not be your laws?

NMC DG: Because they are special zones. In theory, there is a difference; in fact there is no difference. I will tell you how.

The Reuters or AFP, AP were operating until recently outside the free zones. They decided to go to the free zones not because it is freer but because it was more practical for them because of the existence of other media.

I remember in 1977 we started the news agency (WAM). I had been in the country for nearly two years. I saw people from AFP and Reuters mainly and then AP. They came and said they wanted to open branches in Abu Dhabi. I told them, I prefer that you open offices in Dubai and not in Abu Dhabi.

They opened their regional offices in Dubai. They asked me, including AFP, DPA and AP, would you like to take our services and distribute it.

I said, no. I do not want to be a gatekeeper for the Press. Our each newspaper is to decide on their own what to take and to take it the way they like. And that is why until now it is open and free.

Again, I say emphatically that, and I am not saying this propaganda-wise, there is no effect on the journalists at all. It is protection. We have an important protection for the journalists inside the country here to protect them from divulging their sources of information. In other cases, somebody would call and ask, who told you about this?

KT: Even if the matter goes to court the court cannot ask them to divulge their source?

NMC DG: The court cannot ask to disclose. This is for us. I do not like to speak on behalf of other laws or to interfere in other laws or to interfere in the work of the court. But in our point of view according to our draft, there is no way you can oblige (a journalist to disclose his source).

KT: As a journalist, the matter goes to court and the judge demands that as a journalist I should disclose my sources. Can I fall back on the media law. Anything that will overrule that law? Is there another law under which they might be obliged to disclose their source?

NMC DG: I do not think so. You know, luckily enough we are discussing these things. The criticism has been going on for some time. No one was asked why are you saying this? Secondly, as I said, if you read the 16 articles of the present law, they are horrific.
Usually, if there is a story in Khaleej Times or Al Khaleej, it is quoted by AFP or Reuters. It means that we are source for stories that could be harmful to UAE. OK.

We are actually paying the price for press freedom and freedom of expression.
Another example is the labour issue. There are labour cases all over the Gulf. We are nearly the only country which has exposed itself to international microscope and criticism, and we responded positively to that.

This is an important point, the way we are dealing with the press. The government has responded and is still responding positively to any criticism.

The Human Rights Watch came here. They had some kind of questionnaire. They only checked with 40 people. Then, they came to announce their report. We did not stop them. They had a press conference. People were there, journalists from various newspapers. They announced severe attack and criticism of UAE. Ok.

KT: Do you think journalists here self-censor?

NMC DG: Yes. I do not know... We have nothing to do.

KT: There seems to be some kind of a fear. What is the fear?

NMC DG: I do not think there is a basis for this fear. For me, any journalist has his own code of ethics. He should have. This is some kind of self-censorship. I look at it from this way. If you look at the code of ethics that was issued by the journalists, by the editors of the newspapers, we have many restrictions within the code of ethics itself. This is exactly the self-censorship.
We have never practiced pre-censorship and we will never do it. If we have any remark, we say it later and we say it in a very polite way, we never go to any written things. We were about to be taken to court because of this shares thing here. They told us the police and the court will call you because we put you responsible for it. They consider us responsible for whatever is published. … It was finished. Even, in certain cases when there was a decision to close down one paper here, it never happened.

KT: Papers used to be shut down for a few days in the past?

NMC DG: In the past. In the new law, it has to go to the court. The clear cases of shutting down a paper now are, if a paper does not appear within a year or its owner dies and its successors do not agree for one year or if the company goes bankrupt. These are procedures. But what is important is that based on precedent, which is always important, the present law is very strict, has never been resorted to. I do not remember stopping any paper for even two or three days. Even as a precedent, when a country for 29 years has not resorted to this law. This can be used as a valid precedent for anything in the future. Second, the present law does not have these 16 taboos, it allows journalists to get access to information, it gives them the protection that they cannot divulge their sources of information. Other things are details.

More news from