Here’s the section on freedom of speech and expression from the recently released Human Rights Watch report:
In 2010 the government subjected the Jurist Association, an NGO established in 1980 to promote the rule of law and raise professional standards, to mounting restrictions. The government did not permit association representatives to attend meetings abroad and cancelled symposiums that it deemed controversial at home. Members also complained of official pressure to quit the association.
Former association president Muhammad al-Mansoori, whom authorities have harassed for years, was dismissed from his position as a legal advisor to the government of Ras Al Khaimah in January after he gave a television interview in which he criticized restrictions on freedom of speech in the country. Authorities have refused to renew his passport since March 2008.
Police arrested at least four young activists after they attempted to organize a peaceful protest march on July 15 in response to increasing oil prices. Authorities fired one of the organizers from his government job and Dubai police held him in detention for a week for “inciting the nation against the government,” even though the protest was cancelled. Another was imprisoned for more than a month and suspended from his work.
The government monitors press content and journalists routinely exercise self-censorship. Although Prime Minister Sheikh Muhammad stated in 2007 that journalists should not face prison “for reasons related to their work,” a 1980 law still in force provides jail terms for journalists and suspension of publications that publish “materials that cause confusion among the public.”
On February 7, authorities blocked access to the online discussion forum UAE Hewar (http://uaehewar.net/), a popular website that encourages debate on topics ranging from freedom of expression to political rights.
Here’s the response from the government’s news agency:
The UAE Writers Association and UAE Journalists Association have issued a joint statement in which they criticised allegations in the Human Rights Watch report about the situation of freedoms in the country.
The statement lamented the inaccuracy of information in the HRW report and denounced a move by two UAE citizens who sought help from international organisation without referring to local authorities to verify their claims.
“The actions by the HRW and the two individuals were aimed at the UAE reputation. The report had clearly admitted that a set of positive steps was taken by the concerned authorities in 2010,” the statement said.
The Writers and Journalists Associations went on to say: “As the backbone of writing and freedom of expression in the UAE, and from our position as representatives of the intellectual and cultural segment, we can say that the two individuals have the right to express their opinions and thoughts, and that their presence in the press conference held by the HRW, was a clear evidence that the country guarantees freedom of expression.
“It is worth mentioning that the two have the right to seek help from their judges and from the country’s officials to express their thoughts. The officials’ doors are widely opened, with many online windows for both local and federal entities.” They described the move by the two individuals as a “serious precedent that is fully rejected by the community and meant to twist facts and to smear the country’s reputation”, and noted that the country’s constitution allows individuals to seek justice through the fair and competent judiciary system.
“As we reject questioning integrity of UAE judiciary, we also refuse attempts to interfere in the judiciary affairs. What came in the HRW report is quite the contrary of the laws observed in the UAE and their rejection of domestic violence by any family members.” The statement challenged HRW to put forward any court ruling that allowed or encouraged domestic violence.
It also said that though the Writers and Journalists Associations were at the forefront of the movement that advocates freedom of expression and human rights as part of the UAE civil society, neither the complainants, nor the HRW thought of communicating with them to establish the facts.
The Writers and Journalists Associations reiterated that they enjoy complete freedom in conveying the public opinion to the officials with the required objectivity and after verifying the facts.
“The HRW report had also admitted that Vice President and Prime Minister of UAE and Ruler of Dubai His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum had issued an order not to imprison journalists for reasons relating to publication. The report again claimed that the publication law still provides for the imprisonment. This clearly indicates lack of knowledge about the nature of UAE society. When His Highness ordered that, he did so in his capacity as a member of the Federal Supreme Council and in his capacity as the Ruler of Dubai. Therefore, his order has become effective and the only thing that is left is to amend the law to conform with the order, which is a matter of time and procedure.” The statement also noted that HRW’s Executive Director for Middle East and North Africa confessed during the press conference that the report’s language was exaggerated and promised to correct the generalisation in the report.
The HRW held a press conference earlier in Dubai in presence of representatives from the UAE Writers and Journalists associations, to announce the report.
I’m pretty sure most journalists in the UAE would not agree that they’re free to express any and all opinions. But, I will say that the English-language press does an admirable job given the circumstances — I’m often surprised of the level of critical reporting that I see in The National and Gulf News newspapers.
One question: Who exactly are members of the UAE Journalists Association?