By law the National Media Council (NMC), appointed by the President, licenses and censors all publications, including private-association publications. Media outlets must inform the NMC of the appointment of editors, and the NMC is responsible for issuing press credentials. The law authorizes censorship of domestic and foreign publications to remove criticism of the government, ruling families, or friendly governments, as well as other statements that ‘threaten social stability’. According to the council and Dubai police officials, journalists are not given specific publishing instructions, but government officials reportedly warn journalists when they publish material deemed politically or culturally sensitive. Journalists practice extensive self-censorship regarding the issues they choose to cover and how they cover them.
Freedom of speech is guaranteed in the Constitution, but the government restricts this right in practice. The Law of Printing and Publishing No. 15 of 1980 applies to all media, prohibiting ‘defamatory material and negative material about presidents, friendly countries, religious issues, and pornography’. The law prohibits criticism of rulers and speech that may create or encourage social unrest. Journalists and editors practice extensive self-censorship for fear of government retribution, particularly because most journalists were foreign nationals and could be deported. Self-censorship extends even to artists, broadcasters, writers, and bloggers, who routinely censor their own speech or work in order to avoid government legal action and possible punishment, which can include harassment, fines, and imprisonment. Limited and careful public criticism of the government and ministers is permitted, but criticism of ruling families, particularly sheikhs, is not.
The government uses libel laws to suppress criticism of its leaders. Since 2007, after changes in the media libel laws, no journalists have received prison sentences for defamation, but other punishments for supposed violations of libel laws have remained in force, including suspension of publishing for a specified period of time and financial penalties of AED five million (approximately USD 1.4 million) for disparaging senior officials or members of the royal family and AED 500,000 (approximately USD 140,000) for misleading the public and harming the country’s reputation, foreign relations, or economy. On 28 September 2009, an international NGO, the Committee to Protect Journalists, issued a statement to the press calling for the fair treatment of a Dubai-based reporter, Mark Townsend, who was charged with defamation in August for allegedly criticizing his employer, Khaleej Times, in a series of online posts.
The NMC censors review all important media, including imported newspapers and magazines from around the world, and prohibit or censor before distribution any publication or material considered pornographic, excessively violent, derogatory to Islam, supportive of certain Israeli government positions, unduly critical of friendly countries, or critical of the UAE government or its ruling families. The authorities treat the publication of books in the same manner. Educational material for schools and federally-controlled universities are also censored, though less severely in the latter case.