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20 March, 2004

Free aid for free speech

The Gulf News reports that journalists brought to trial will get free legal aid from a pioneering group of lawyers. "The economic openness of the UAE should be inseparable from any other open policy adopted by the country. It's illogical to adopt an open economy policy while at the same time adopting strict policy on freedom of speech," says lawyer Abdul Hameed.

Effectively there is zero freedom of speech here. That is because any such freedoms - even in the Free Zones - were curtailed by the nebulous "must take into account the culture of the region" speech by Saeed Al-Muntafiq at the launch of Dubai Media City. Essentially, free speech in the UAE is a mass of contradictions.

The DMC inaugural speech by Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE Minister of Information and Culture, states that:

"...freedom of the media... is essential. It is the life breath of any effective media."

Abdullah then claims that when he talks about media freedom, he "does not not mean it as an ambiguous and misleading phrase."

"The freedom in which we believe is responsible freedom, in accordance with the law."

So what are these laws? Later clarifications by local lawyers claim they are the same as general UAE law, despite the Free Zone status. According to Al Tamimi's Hoda Barakat, this prohibits:

"...any insult to Islam, the government or higher interest of the state... publishing opinions violating public decency, what purports to inciting hate crimes, confidential communications or military affairs or provisions of agreements or treaties concluded by the government before being published in the official gazette... publishing anything that involves blemishing any Arab, Islamic or friendly country president."

So what is the point of article 30 of the UAE constitution?

"Freedom of opinion and expressing it verbally, in writing or by other means of expression, shall be guaranteed within the limits of law."

Media law in the Emirates has a long, rocky road ahead.

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