~ Media Laws and Regulations of the GCC Countries
In 2013, Doha Centre for Media Freedom launched a report on Media Laws and Regulations of the GCC Countries, conducted by Dr Mr Matt Duffy, a researcher who specialises in journalism and media law in the Middle East.
The report analyses the penal code, media laws and current media landscape of the GCC countries. The objective of this research was to understand to what extent the legal frameworks of these six countries guarantee press freedom.
The analysis found that all of the GCC countries share several traits when looking at the regulations that affect journalists and the communication sector. All of the GCC countries, except Saudi Arabia, guarantee freedom of expression in some way, albeit all “within the limits of the law.”
The findings of the report point to several fields in which the media laws and regulations of the GCC countries restrain press freedom.
1. Criminal defamation
Every GCC country treats libel and slander as a criminal offense, meaning an accusation can lead to an arrest. Only the UAE has outlawed the practice of sentencing journalists to jail time for offenses, but accusations are still considered criminal.
2. Licensing of journalists and media outlets
Another feature shared by every GCC country is the licensing of journalists and media outlets. Licensing is a common practice in the GCC in different sectors. Governments license beauticians, doctors and plumbers to ensure the public are safe and well-served by these professions. However, in the case of journalists, Duffy notes that government ministers with the ability to grant and revoke licenses may exercise undue influence on the journalists who are striving to maintain independence.
3. Content restrictions
All GCC countries also carry a long list of prohibitions in their media laws. Such restrictions are usually imposed in order to prevent the publication of stories that may “damage the economy” or “upset the public order.” According to Duffy, such laws have the potential to lead to an inordinate amount of self-censorship.
4. Lèse-majesté laws
All the media laws of the GCC countries also contain lèse-majesté laws that prohibit insults and criticism of the country’s rulers. Such laws can severely limit the public benefit that accompanies public debate and discussion of government policies.
5. Truth as a mandate
The media laws of Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Oman all contain clauses that in some ways mandate journalists to ensure their reports are “true.” While certainly a noble goal, efforts to mandate “truth” are troublesome, particularly when most journalism is simply attributing facts to other sources. For Duffy, government prosecutions over false reports tend to have simply one effect: self-censorship.
6. Judicial review
Most GCC countries’ legal frameworks do not include independent judicial review, with the exception of Kuwait’s media law, which notably includes it. A judicial review is the system through which a court is given the authority to examine an executive or legislative act and to invalidate that act if it is contrary to constitutional principles.
7. Editorial guidelines
Finally, the research found that most GCC countries’ laws do not promote the societal value of journalism. For the author, including a clear statement in one of the media laws could help rectify this imbalance.
As an example, Duffy highlights the case of the Abu Dhabi Media Zone which recently issued content guidelines for its free zone in the UAE. The regulatory framework of the campus for foreign media companies ensures a balance between “freedom of expression and the social and cultural expectations of society.”
The author notes that while the guidelines stipulate that religion, the ruling families, and privacy should all receive utmost respect from journalists, they also make clear that editorial justifications should allow the media to disseminate news even if it “has the potential to cause harm.”
According to Duffy, a journalist working in a country with this statement embedded in its media law would feel empowered to practice good journalism.
Self-censorship seems to be a recurrent practice in all GCC countries. For Duffy, "in many GCC countries, the vast majority of journalists are expatriates from other English or Arabic-language countries. These journalists work under a constant fear that if they upset the wrong government official they could be deported. This environment rarely leds to robust journalism. The solution, ultimately, is to have all journalism in the GCC conducted by local journalists.
Commenting on the report, Duffy stressed that despite flaws of revised laws currently being drafted in the GCC countries, these laws should be seen as a step towards a freer press.
Duffy added that not all GCC countries are taking the right turn towards press freedom since “in most countries, there have been more restrictions on speech since the Arab spring.” In all of them, there are still laws in place against insulting the rulers.