It was supposed to be a reform of a bad piece of legislation that not only muzzled the press but also sent journalists to jail. So say officials in the United Arab Emirates when asked about a new media law that is awaiting approval by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the federation’s president.

Much to the officials’ chagrin, however, the pending law has provoked uproar. For in today’s world – and particularly in a country establishing itself as a media and cultural hub – even the local press (the target of the new law) expects nothing less than freedom of speech.

Last week Human Rights Watch added its voice to the chorus of disapproval, charging that the draft still suffered from restrictions on freedom of speech and imposed onerous controls and financial penalties.

The group recognised that the law contained some positive provisions that would help develop a free media in the country. These include a commitment allowing journalists to protect sources and the removal of criminal penalties. But it also pointed to what many journalists consider the main focus of the law: a prohibition on publishing information that could be deemed to harm the national economy or disparage government officials.

The new law has been in the making for years. But it comes at a delicate time, when reporting on the UAE has focused on Dubai’s financial and economic woes. The Dubai government, always sensitive to criticism, has been enraged by the reporting – and it has blamed the press for tarnishing its image.

True, the new law does not compare badly by regional standards. But that is not saying much. In much of the Middle East the media is seen as a threat that should be suppressed, not promoted.

In Iran, Roxana Saberi, a US-Iranian journalist, was sentenced at the weekend to eight years in jail on charges of espionage, and she is not the first journalist to suffer such a fate. In Syria, the media is prohibited from reporting on topics of “national security” or “national unity”, which, in practice, means anything of which the government does not approve.

In Saudi Arabia, the press is considered “a tool to educate the masses, propagate government views and promote national unity”, according to Freedom House, a US-based watchdog. Even in Qatar, where broadcaster al-Jazeera is given freedom to criticise other governments, the press is shackled by direct and indirect censorship.

As control of the media has slipped with a proliferation of satellite channels and the internet, some governments are declaring war on blogs and are busily blocking political websites. Even more egregious was last year’s move by Arab League information ministers (with a few abstentions) to approve a charter that targets satellite broadcasting – mainly al-Jazeera – by banning content that damages “social peace and national unity”.

In a region where even leaders now publicly bemoan political divisions, the charter astonishingly says the practice of freedom should protect the higher interests of the “Arab nation”.

Sadly, a free press would be an anomaly in the existing Arab political order, in which the pursuit of democracy has been regressing, at times dramatically.

Indeed, in some parts of the region, elections are tools by which leaders legitimise their prolonged rule, rather than means by which voters choose their governments. The recent Algerian presidential poll, which handed Abdelaziz Bouteflika a third term in office, was a case in point.

But, while the state can still stage-manage elections, controlling the free flow of information has become much harder, whatever laws are in place.

New websites appear as fast as others disappear, and even political campaigns can be organised through Facebook, as shown by the April 6 youth movement in Egypt.

Whether in the UAE or elsewhere, governments that seek to stifle the press do so at their own peril. The outcome will not be a mature and reliable press, the often stated objective of restrictions, but quite the opposite.

By Roula Khalaf

From : The Financial Times