Libel and slander laws in the Middle East dramatically hinder good local journalism in the region. Such laws are perhaps second only to “insulting the ruler” charges in their ability squelch freedom of the press and speech. A recent incident in the United Arab Emirates demonstrates their devastating effect.

I wrote an article for Al Monitor about the case of a man who was arrested for recording a video of an Emirati man beating an Indian driver.

However, police also arrested the Indian man who recorded and uploaded the incident. The arrest came after the Emirati man’s family filed a complaint with police alleging an invasion of privacy as well as defamation. According to local reports, the man who videoed the incident actually faces more jail time than the Emirati attacker.

Defamation in the UAE — as well as the entire Arab world — differs from international legal norms in several substantive respects. First, it’s a criminal charge rather than a civil legal issue (jail time versus a financial settlement.) More importantly, truth is not a defense against defamation in the Arab world.

Such an approach has a crushing effect on anyone wishing to record a crime or journalists working to uncover corruption. The approach allows anyone behaving badly to win a defamation charge by simply showing that a true depiction of his actions damaged his reputation.

International legal norms hold that truth is an automatic defense against defamation charges. The approach ensures that the public benefits from the exposition of defamatory behavior. No one should be allowed to protect a reputation that they do not deserve.

I’ll be speaking more about this subject in Washington, DC, this weekend at the annual Association of Educators of Journalism and Mass Communication conference. Will post the slides for the presentation soon.

For more details on Arab defamation laws and other impediments to good Arab journalism, check out my Jadaliyya article, “Despite Arab Uprisings, Press Freedom Still Elusive.”