- The Washington Times - Monday, April 13, 2009

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES (AP) - A rights group criticized a proposed media law in the United Arab Emirates, saying the pending legislation continues to stifle the press, restricts free speech and strengthens self-censorship among journalists.

Human Rights Watch said in a new report released Monday in Dubai that the Emirates’ draft media law is plagued with problems such as “draconian fines” and “harsh registration requirements,” and will tighten the government’s control of the media.

The proposed law has sent a chill through the local media. It has also left foreign news organization in Dubai wondering about the legislation’s impact on their operations.

Journalist groups in the Emirates have previously accused officials of trying to muzzle the press with the new law. Some said it was an attempt to force news outlets to become part of the country’s image-building machine in challenging economic times and after years of basking in coverage of hyper-growth.

As in the rest of the Middle East, local media in the UAE have typically avoided stories that could anger ruling officials. But when inviting foreign media to set up offices here, the authorities promised to allow more press freedoms than in other countries of the region.

“We were hoping for a model media law (in the UAE) for others in the region to follow,” Samer Muscati, a researcher with the Human Rights Watch, told The Associated Press Monday.

The draft media law can impose fines up to about $136,000 for “carrying misleading news that harms the national economy.” It also includes fines of a staggering $1,350,000 for “insulting” members of the government and the ruling family, the New York-based watchdog said in the report.

The National Media Council, a governmental body overseeing the media, rejected the group’s criticism of the draft that was passed by the Emirates legislature in January and is awaiting the final approval of the country’s president.

The Council emphasized the law’s improvements _ lack of criminal penalties for journalist and protection for reporters against revealing their sources _ and said the group’s report shows “real lack of understanding of the situation in the Emirates.”

Some of the watchdog’s remarks were an “attempt to promote concepts … that are not compatible with the laws of the UAE and its value system,” the Council said in a statement, carried by the UAE’s official WAM news agency Monday.

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