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Media marks press freedom

Journalist's Association names Sept 25 UAE Press Freedom Day to commemorate increasing press freedom in the UAE.

DUBAI // The last few years have seen increasing freedom for the UAE's media to report the news. A year ago yesterday, Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum proclaimed that journalists should no longer face the threat of jail for carrying out their duties, a decision that the Journalists' Association wants to remember by making Sept 25 UAE Press Freedom Day. A new media law is currently being drafted, and international news organisations are using the country both as a source of news and a base from which to cover the events of the region. Despite the changes, journalists working for local media here operate within tighter regulations than their counterparts in Europe and North America. For some of the UAE's citizens and residents, these restrictions are obstacles that should be overcome - but for others, who have seen the press in other countries as being free to insult and attack religion and traditional values, they are safeguards against the loss of cultural identity. Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), an international NGO that campaigns on behalf of the media world-wide, ranked the UAE 65th out of 169 countries in its 2007 Press Freedom Index, ranking it as having the third freest press in the region behind Israel and Kuwait. "The UAE has privately-owned newspapers and independent journalists, and reporters for foreign organisations are able to work quite freely," said Hajar Smouni, head of the Middle East and North Africa desk for RSF. "Removing the threat of jail for reporting sends a positive image to the press, but local journalists, many of whom are foreigners who rely on the government for their residence visas, still have 'red lines' they don't cross. There are definite limits in the press, and there are still a number of things that need to be done regarding censorship of the internet - I am not talking about censoring pornography, but there are a number of blogs and so on that are still blocked." Speaking before a majlis on Wednesday night that was held to mark press freedom day, Mohammed Youssef, the head of the UAE Journalists' Association, criticized the length of time it can take public relations (PR) firms to respond to media queries, but agreed that the press had more freedom now than it did even just a few years ago. "As a journalist, if I have news I have to write it - it cannot wait for a long time for a response," he said. "[Government officials and businessmen] know they cannot keep everything secret. They do not want to see a rumour on the internet that is only 10 per cent true, and they are learning that if they close their doors and do not give information, that is what they will get. Still it is hard, it is a fight to get the truth." He said delays were often caused because the only person authorized to talk to the press is often the head of an organisation. However, he predicted that in the next few years more spokespeople would be given the power to speak on behalf of the business or government department. "We are talking to many people about this, and I think it will soon start to happen more," he said. "If you need more time to get an answer, we can understand that, but now I think it is not possible to stop a story from appearing just by not giving an answer. If a journalist has a story and knows it is true, there is more freedom to print it now even without a response." Louay al Samarrai, the managing director of Active Public Relations, said standards in the PR industry were improving but said some firms were still "press release factories" that did not fully understand the needs of their clients or of journalists. "With more international companies entering the UAE, it is raising the standards of the PR agencies by default," he said. "If the PR company is not pulling its weight and the international company is used to a slick performance, they will pull the plug and go elsewhere." He said there was still a tendency for some PR firms to try and buy coverage in the press by bribing journalists, rather than properly addressing their need for access to information. "It gives a bad name," he said. "A lot of journalists are doing a great job but others are not, and taking presents still exists. As an agency we have never had to resort to those tactics." *Additional reporting by Eugene Harnan gmcclenaghan@thenational.ae eharnan@thenational.ae

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