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Apr 14, 2009 - 09:29 -

WAM Abu Dhabi, Apr. 14, 2009 (WAM) -- Two major UAE English dailies today commented on the draft media law in the UAE, which has attracted a mixed reaction of praise and criticism from the Human Rights Watch, leading to continuous debate with the latter joining in the hot debate in the claim that the law restricts free expression.

Commenting editorially on the issue today, under the title "Free Media Will Only Help UAE", the Dubai-based "Khaleej Times" said: "The continuing debate about a draft media law in the UAE has taken a completely new direction with the US-based rights body, Human Rights Watch, joining the discussion. The rights watch group has come out with a rather strong critique of the draft media law that was passed by the UAE Federal National Council in January and is awaiting the President's nod. It claims the proposed law restricts free expression and will interfere with the media's ability to work freely and effectively.

"The National Media Council, the UAE's regulatory authority, responded swiftly and effectively to the criticism of the draft law, issuing a detailed rejoinder within hours of the report.

"This is not the first time the HRW has subjected the UAE to its harsh criticism, often seen as exaggerated. The Middle East in general does not exactly have an exemplary record when it comes to media freedom. This is hardly surprising given the general lack of freedom and civil liberties in a region that is still recovering from centuries of colonisation.

"But the young nation that is UAE, it has always bucked the regional trend. Just as it has constantly explored new vistas and broken new ground in developing a world-class infrastructure and institutions, it has been exceptionally tolerant of the media as well as other civil liberties. In a region where newspapers and televisions were traditionally owned by the state, it allowed private operators to run their own show three decades ago. This newspaper just as others was one of the first to be launched by an individual.

"But we are still a young country. It's a work in progress. We have a long way to go before we can really claim we have achieved globally accepted standards of a free media and other civilian institutions. Of course, we understand that all freedom comes with responsibility. The media cannot operate in vacuum, independent of the country's values, traditions and social sensitivities. This is something that is not specific to the UAE but applies to media everywhere.

"At the same time, it is not possible to dismiss the issues and genuine concerns raised by the media community in the UAE. We would urge the nation's leaders, who have always demonstrated remarkable political maturity and pragmatism, to take into account these concerns and address them.

"In the draft law, there are some clauses that worry the UAE media. They should be cleared for everyone's benefit. A free media is not an adversary, but an ally of the nation; it will only strengthen the UAE and help it deal with the challenges of a fast changing world." Also commenting on the same issue under the title "Draft media law seeks to empower", the "Gulf News" of Dubai said: "The new draft media law is not ideal legislation, but it is a significant improvement over the present law, in effect since 1980. It is being unfairly dismissed by groups such as US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) despite the fact that it contains a number of positives.

"In a report released in Dubai yesterday, HRW described the draft law as an obstacle to the growth of freedom of speech in the country.

"However, the draft law in fact stresses journalists' freedom to investigate and report, and protects their right to criticise the government and officials without fear of coercion or prosecution.

"A case in point is the HRW's press conference itself. They were able to release their report and speak freely to the media. They were able to criticise the government and go home.

"We, as media professionals and writers, will continue to push for wider freedoms and unhindered access to news and information. But it is only fair to say that the new draft law provides us immunity from jail. And it is also fair to say that this freedom is a home-grown evolution that takes into account our society's values and interests." WAM/SA