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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

'Some people believe media regulation is about restriction ... it's not'

Content regulation is also about ensuring that what is disseminated is done so in a way that protects our society, writes Maryam AlMheiri

The National Media Council survey was among the largest of its kind in the Middle East. Pawan Singh / The National
The National Media Council survey was among the largest of its kind in the Middle East. Pawan Singh / The National

The term “content regulation” is probably one of the most misunderstood phrases in the media sector. Use it in front of most journalists or content creators and their faces will probably go pale – images of bureaucratic hurdles and censorship will be whirling around in their minds.

This is a common misconception: some people believe that media regulation is all about restriction. It’s not.

The role of good content regulation balances the importance of freedom of expression with a duty to be fair, accurate, respectful and tolerant. It encourages a competitive environment but also safeguards the rights of all stakeholders. It allows for debate through the dissemination of information that stimulates, not stifles.

Content regulation is also about ensuring that what is disseminated is done so in a way that protects our society, whether from those who want to harm it (by fuelling hatred or inciting criminal activity) or by ensuring that privacy is protected; by protecting consumers against misleading advertising and promotions; and by ensuring that our social and cultural norms are respected.

It is, of course, a very fine balancing act to protect society while ensuring content creators have the freedom they need to produce quality content. If you go too far, it can stifle opinion and debate. If you don’t go far enough, then you risk allowing dissemination of content that could have long-term damaging effects, such as disseminating misinformation and publishing incendiary statements, which could ultimately affect a nation’s security.

People trust what they read, view or hear and the information they consume impacts their opinions, therefore effective regulation is also about ensuring due impartiality, fairness, accuracy and tolerance.

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In the UAE, it has been the goal of our leaders to guide citizens from an early age to be tolerant and respectful. And this is an ongoing endeavour for the Ministry of Tolerance, which was established in 2016 with the primary mission to promote tolerance and instil its core principles as a fundamental value in the UAE. There are also new initiatives being introduced in the education curriculum where students will learn about tolerance, respect, entrepreneurship and responsibility.

However, currently one of the most debated topics is the issue of how to regulate content in our digital world. The ability to access information from anywhere on Earth has changed the lives of nearly everyone on the planet. It has changed the way we consume news and the way information is available. Unfortunately, while the internet has connected great minds to invent applications to improve the lives of millions, it has also become a tool for extremists, criminals and terrorists to recruit, plot and commit crime – consequently, regulation is clearly needed.

There are disparities in internet regulation around the world. China’s so-called "Great Firewall" is one of the most restrictive forms of regulation globally, denying access to many popular sites such as Google, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. This restriction allows for political agenda dissemination and control of access to content generally.

Meanwhile, in the United States, where digital content regulation is limited, there are calls for it to be reduced even more, with the large internet providers claiming regulation is damaging to investment and innovation.

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Regardless of jurisdiction, the most successful form of good content regulation is often considered to be self-regulation. Why? Because it puts the responsibility on the content creator to ensure that what they produce is accurate, tolerant and legally compliant. What good regulation is not about, is telling people what they can, or can’t, create – but rather making them accountable for what they do create.

A good example of self-regulation can be found in the United Kingdom, which has one of the most respected journalism sectors in the world. The country has an Editors' Code for newspapers and magazines, overseen by the Independent Press Standards Organisation, and broadcasters also have a code regulated by the Office of Communications.

At the Media Zone Authority – Abu Dhabi, we also encourage self-regulation through our Content Code. It sets out the editorial standards that must be maintained by all individuals or entities working from the Media Zone – Abu Dhabi. It has been developed to provide a necessary level of protection for society but also minimise the impact on commercial productivity and creativity.

Our aim is to encourage innovation, but we also want to promote a responsible media. We want our incredible pool of talent (which is growing larger and stronger every day) to provide insightful, forward-thinking and diverse content, while making responsible and informed decisions about the content they disseminate. Our Content Code reflects these principles.

Regulating content is, indeed, a challenge and one that we will no doubt be debated for many years to come.

Maryam AlMheiri is the CEO of Media Zone Authority – Abu Dhabi and twofour54