May 3 is World Press Freedom Day, marked by the United Nations to “celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom.” The UN will be hosting a conference in Tunisia and students at my university have organized their own celebration. They’re pretty excited about it — evidenced by the size of the banner above.
Our student chapter of the UAE Society of Professional Journalists organized the event under the tutelage of my fantastic colleague Dr. David Bulla. We’ll have three Emirati speakers on campus who will speak about issues surrounding press freedom: Mishaal al Gergawi, a public affairs commentator; Noura al Kaabi, a member of the Federal National Council and CEO of TwoFour54, an Arab media incubator; and Mohammad al Hammadi, the editor-in-chief of National Geographic Arabia. Activities include a Debate Club debate, poetry readings, soapbox speeches and T-shirt and food giveaways. It’s shaped up to be a pretty great event, and I’m quite proud of the students who have made it happen.
To follow along with the activities, check out the Twitter hashtag #ZU_WPFD.
While I’m discussing press freedom, allow me to reference my last column in Gulf News. I suggested that the Abu Dhabi Media Authority’s content guidelines would make an excellent foundation for a new press law in the United Arab Emirates. These guidelines, while making sure to respect local culture and sensibilities, provide plenty of space to practice good journalism. My conclusion:
In this respect, one part of the media zone’s guidelines is stunning and notably absent in the UAE’s current and draft media laws. The guidelines make clear the editorial justification that allows the media to disseminate the news even if it “has the potential to cause harm.”
Editorial justifications, according to the MZA code, include “the exposure of crime, corruption, antisocial behaviour, injustice or serious impropriety, protecting public health or safety, exposing lies, hypocrisy or materially misleading claims made by individuals or organisations, disclosing incompetence, and negligence or dereliction of duty that affects the public.”
The guidelines essentially authorise news outlets to practice the type of healthy watchdog journalism commonplace in many nations. A UAE news organisation operating under a media law based on this code would feel empowered to investigate wrongdoing and public malfeasance without worry of any retribution. Even if the police, prosecutors or an offended party took issue with a report and took the journalist to court, a judge would have to weigh the reporting against the stated legal protections regarding the exposure of wrongdoing. Such a law would drastically improve the ability of journalists to practise good journalism in the UAE.
As Arab countries struggle with the new realities of a post-Arab Spring world, many will be taking a look at their media laws — all of which reflect an outdated mass media era. Indeed, Qatar recently announced that their government would soon issue a revision of its media law. The UAE should lead the way in this effort. In a country that excels at firsts, a revised media law based on these culturally sensitive content guidelines would provide an excellent example for the Arab world to follow.
Will be interesting to see if we see any movement on this issue — from the UAE, Qatar or any other countries in the Middle East.