United Arab Emirates is a federal state comprising seven emirates, including Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The UAE nationals represent 11.5% of the population who number 8.5 million people. The country has seen a wave of arrests and violations of human rights and freedoms and mute the voices of dissent. The authorities are continuously and increasingly, restricting personal freedoms and freedom of speech, press, assembly and association. As practiced blatant attacks on the privacy of citizens. On the occasion of World press Freedom day, the ICJHR publishes its first report on the status of the media and freedom of expression in the United Arab Emirates.
“Freedom of opinion and expression in speech and writing, and all means of expression are guaranteed within the law.” article 30 of the Constitution of the UAE.
Also the United Arab Emirates Arab signed the Charter on Human Rights, which “guarantees the right to information and freedom of opinion and expression and the right to seek, receive and impart information by any means, regardless of geographical boundaries,” article 32.
Regrettably, this voluntary adhesion to respecting freedom of expression has no effect on the daily life of the citizens. Although the Constitution guarantees these freedoms, the UAE Government doesn’t deign to use the legislative, judicial and executive branches to limit these rights.
In fact, the government of the United Arab Emirates became surrounded by a set of laws and regulations that are designed to restrict freedom of expression for citizens and blocking access to information.
At the end of 2012 there were adoption of a law on cybercrimes, which gave more powers to the authorities by allowing her to pursue anyone, which cast doubt on the country’s political system through social networks (Twitter, Facebook and e-mail messages, etc.). This law was issued in 2006 and the amendments came in 2012 with the aim of toughening the penalties contained in the law on cybercrime.
This law has opened the way for many of the restrictions intended to muzzle citizens and condemn them to silence in the face of repressive political power. Especially since it contains items, the areas of interpretation can be wide and open the door to unfair trials, based on vague charges.
• Article 28 of the decree states that the dissemination of information, news or images deemed “likely to endanger the safety and the supreme interests or undermine public order”, can be punishable by imprisonment and a penalty of up to one million dirhams
• Prosecute anyone found opposing or criticizing the ruling regime or all members of the government, and the heads of the Emirates, successors or prejudice national symbols
• The use of electronic means to spread false information or inaccurate, which could pose a threat to the reputation and standing of the state or its institutions lead to prosecution and imprisonment (Article 38)
• Give wide powers to the judicial authorities to confiscate software, hardware or order the closure of cybercafés or sites (Articles 29 and 41)
• Use the Internet to undermine the national unity or social peace is a criminal act (Article 24)
These items and many others seem to be safeguards to protect the security of the state and its interests, but when we question these articles, we see that it firstly protects the interests of the government and the ruling power. However, the laws are supposed to protect the interests of citizens and their safety and not only those of the regime.
Therefore, this law is used to suppress freedom of expression and every thought that opposes the policy of the state, because it becomes a threat to its security and in this perspective, the citizen’s right to speak is a form of attack to the prestige of the state.
Hardening law regarding prison sentences and heavy penalties for anyone who criticizes the policy of the State or requires reforms, is criminalizing all voices who aspire to achieve justice and democracy, making it completely invalidates the claims of the government of wanting to protect citizens by enacting restrictive laws on online activities. This is the case of Abdullah Al-Hadidi who was arrested for publishing information on Twitter about the trial of the “UAE94” group. Al-Hadidi is also the first activist arrested under the new law on cybercrime.
The law is not limited to restrict freedom of expression but also includes the freedom of assembly and association. Some sentences do not even allow defendants to appeal because it is “crimes” that threaten the security of the state and the most striking example is Article 28 of the Law on Cybercrime.
The law seems to be a way to protect the privacy of citizens, but in reality, it is a tool for spying on activists, human rights defenders and families of the political prisoners and monitor their writings, their tweets, their statements and their relationships with human rights organizations.
Federal Law No. 15 of 1980 on the Press and Publication
It regulates all aspects of media and is considered one of the press laws more restrictive in the Arab world. It allows the state to censor domestic and foreign publications prior to their distribution, and prohibits criticism of government leaders and the ruling family, and the governments of friendly countries. The law also prohibits the publication of information that causes damage to the national economy. Violation of the law can result in fines and prison sentences.
Federal criminal law
It contains several articles that restrict freedoms and impose penalties in connection with the freedoms of expression and association. Among these items, include:
The article176 states that courts can impose penalties of up to 5 years in prison for those who insult the head of state, the flag or national symbols. Article 8 goes further; penalties extend to people who insult the Vice President, or members of the Federal Council, successors and their delegates.
Section 265: the publication of non-specific information or bad faith on trial is liable to a prison sentence.
These sections of law threatens freedom of expression of citizens for several reasons:
1. The criminalization of criticism of authority is a criminalization of the right to discuss important political issues in the country, which is one of the essential duties for the exercise of citizenship.
2. The law does not define the word “insult”, which allows the regime to apply the law selectively and arbitrarily, without notifying citizens about what is offensive behavior, allowing authorities to consider any political criticism as a form of “insult”.
3. Insult a governor is not a threat to national security and the criminalization of this speech is not necessary to maintain national security or public order. Instead, silence might even be a source of threat to the security and social peace.
The role of institutions in regulating the sector information
It is usual, in the repressive political systems, the establishment of government structures seemingly means to regulate the media sector but aims to restrict.
In the UAE, there is a National Media Council (NMC), which oversees the media landscape in the country and keeps an eye on the content published. Established in 2006, the Council is responsible for giving permissions to all publications and issue press credentials to reporters. The president of the state appoints the members of this council, which reflects the subordination of this organ to the State. The United Arab Emirates have also, three open zones to foreign media.
Even if they are subject to their own laws, the media installed in these free zones also fall under the laws of UAE 1980 press and penal code. All these areas must also obtain permission from CNM for all activities of printing and distribution.
The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), established in 2008 is responsible for managing the telecommunications and information technology in UAE. It is linked to the Prime Minister and Vice President of the United Arab Emirates.
She is also responsible for the regulation of the Internet and lists sites to censor. But in practice, according to RSF, “TRA filter all sites or pages on topics related to the situation of human rights in the country (such as the Emirate Center for Human Rights), or political even religious”. Electronic versions of some newspapers are also inaccessible, as well as proxy sites. While Skype has remained elusive until 2013. This filtering of the Internet has strengthened considerably during the Arab uprisings.”
Trial group “UAE94”: freedom of expression at risk
During the period of the trial of “UAE94”, party members of al-islah, in July 2013, the UAE authorities have begun to hunt all voices challenging the trial or even report facts its progress on social networks. Thus, monitoring of Twitter has become almost permanent conducting a war against the twitters, bloggers and all dissenting voices.
During the trial many observers and human rights said it was a trial of free expression by excellence of the fact that there was not enough evidence to criminalize them. Their only crime was to demand political freedoms and reforms in the country by using their right to free expression through peaceful means.
The Emirati authorities have also blocked access court to observers and international media. UAE authorities have also prevented international observers and foreign media from attending the trial. Reporters Without Borders denounced in a statement released after the trial “the blackout of information” that had prevailed at trial.
The period surrounding the trial was characterized by arrests among users of social networks in a systematic manner.
Abdullah Al-Hadidi is the first activist to be arrested for posting information on Twitter. He is the son of political prisoner Abdurrahman Al-Hadidi. He was arrested March 22, 2013 and sentenced on April 9 to 10 months in prison for publishing on the Internet “false information about the trial of ” UAE 94″ group, and was released on November 1, 2013 at the end of his sentence.
Waleed Al Shehhi, who was arrested on May 11 and was sentenced to two years in prison on November 18, 2013 and a fine of 500,000 dirhams to publish Tweets about the trial of ” UAE 94″ group. The judgment was issued on the basis of articles 28 and 29 of cybercrimes released in 2012 and Article 262 of the Penal Code. His tweets were deemed defamatory and damaging to the reputation of the state.
Reporters Without Borders has appointed Waleed Al-Shehhi, one of the “100 heroes of information” on the World Press Freedom day in 2014.
By publishing this list for the first time, RSF Want to “salute the courage of the journalists and bloggers who sacrifice their safety every day and sometimes their lives to their vocation,” said Christophe Deloire, RSF Secretary-General. “Heroes of information” are an inspiration to all women and all men who yearn for freedom, and without the determination and that of all their fellows, it would not be possible to extend the area of freedom itself.”
In July 2013, four hacktivists were arrested for having speak of “UAE94″ trial on their Twitter accounts. This is Hussain Al-Ajlah, Youssef Al-Obaid Zaabi, Hitham Jassim Rabia and Khalifah Othman Al-Shehhi.
Khalifah Rabia and Othman Al-Shehhi, both arrested on July 23 for having expressed on social networks solidarity with “UAE94” political prisoners and criticizing security services. They were judged on 10 March to 5 years in prison and a fine of 500,000 dirhams.
Obaid Yousef Al Zaabi, was arrested on July 2, 2013 after publishing Tweets about the a “UAE 94” trial which includes his brother Ahmed Yousef Zaabi
Despite his release on August 4, 2013 for health reasons, the security arrest him again on 12 December, following an interview with CNN in which he talked about the imprisonment in the UAE of the American Shezanne Cassim, who published a humorous video on Dubai youths.
Abdurrahman Omar Bajubair, was sentenced in absentia on December 25 to five years in prison for running a website called “moutadhaminoun” and created Twitter accounts that evoke the atrocities against prisoners in the “UAE94 “trial. He was prosecuted for “undermining the reputation of the Supreme Court” under the new law on cybercrime in 2012.
Mohammed Zomor, one of the Internet users accused of “insulting the head of state and his Crown Prince” after publishing information about the contract, which was signed by the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi with Blackwater in order to create a private militia to suppress freedoms. He was sentenced on December 25, 2013 for a period of three years in prison and a fine of 000 500 dirhams. Among the charges against him, published information about acts of torture carried out by the security forces against political prisoners.
The latest arrest in this campaign against activists and Internet users is Osama al-Najjar. He was arrested at his family home on March 17, 2014 and was then taken to an unknown location. Police did not disclose to his family about his place of detention, which is a common practice to keep the detainees in secret. Osama is the son of political prisoner Hussain al-Najjar, who was sentenced to ten years in the “UAE 94” trial. It seems that the arrest of Osama came after numerous tweets and media interventions about the arrest of his father and the conditions of detention and torture.
According to Reporters Without Borders, one day before he was arrested on March 16, the judge of the Emirate of Sharjah urged, in a speech on the waves of radio families of “UAE94” prisoners not to encourage their children to “hate their homeland.” Following that Osama had posted a message on twitter in which he denounced the conditions of imprisonment of his father and said: ” Your Highness, the doctor, we do not hate our countries, we will not forget the injustice we have suffered, even if our mothers would forget. To my father who suffers injustice for 20 years, between imprisonment and harassment. ”
Most of the detained persons are subjected to ill-treatment and torture. However, no investigation was conducted for the prosecution. This is a clear violation of the disposition of the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. (Article 12).
According to the latest information, Osama Al-Najjar, who was arrested on March 14 in the Emirate of Ajman, is currently in a clinic in Al Wathba prison located in Abu Dhabi, due to the torture that he suffered. The doctor who examined him found traces of torture on the feet because of the beatings he received with an iron object. He said, also, that his tongue is chapped. Osama said that the doctor was afraid to mention these observations in the medical report. Therefore, he challenges the report prepared by the prison clinic since it does not state all the facts about his health.
Media, journalists, foreign activists … all in the crosshairs
In the UAE, it is common that individuals, whether Emirati or foreign, to be the target of abuse or intimidation when they speak publicly or show their with the government’s policies.
Egyptian journalist Anas Fouda, was arrested on July 3, 2013, was released on August 4, and was deported to Egypt without valid reasons. It was also mentioned in a televised statement after his release that the investigation was limited to its relations with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Still Egyptian journalist Mohamed Ali Mousa among 14 other Egyptian prisoners in the UAE. On 21 January 2014 a total of 30 people (20 UAE and 10 Egyptian) were sentenced to prison for a period ranging from three months to five years in prison for “publishing confidential information about national security, and the creation of an unrecognized association and links with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.”
The Emirati authorities also carry out arbitrary detention or expulsion when migrant workers make demands of political, social or working conditions.
Human Rights Watch has not escaped this rule. Authorities prevented the organization from holding a press conference in Dubai on January 23 to submit its annual report that included criticism about freedom of expression and association in the United Arab Emirates. The next day, on January 24, the authorities banned Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the North Africa and the Middle East, from entering the country. The Executive Director of HRW had commented on this event saying, “the government has demonstrated its intolerance of freedom of expression and fear of criticism.”
As a consequence of increasing abuse and escalating repression, the UAE was 118th in the world ranking of press freedom in 2014, is 4 points down.
It is worth mentioning that the UAE government is committed in June 2013, during the Universal Periodic Review of the Council of Human Rights to:
1. Respect the right to freedom of expression and association and to reduce the recourse to judicial proceedings against persons who exercise these rights
2. Take measures to protect human rights, journalists and minorities from discrimination and persecution and intimidation, including the deprivation of nationality
3. Improving the legislative framework to consolidate the rights of expression
4. Implement the articles of the Constitution relating to freedom of expression
But on the ground, we did not see a significant improvement in the policies of the regime; on the contrary he continued a wave of arrests of activists because of Tweets or statements to the media or dissemination of news and information on the general situation of the country.
Media Between disinformation and blackout
The harassment of human rights defenders is not limited to the monitoring of their activities, but the authorities through the media and social networks lead a campaign of denigration against his opponents.
Often government or even private media accuse the dissidents of treason, terrorism and serve foreign agendas. This was the case at “UAE94” trial when the media have conducted a campaign of denigration and defamation of prisoners. This in addition to misinformation and media blackout on all these detentions and attacks on freedom.
In view of all the foregoing, the International Centre for Justice and Human Rights (CIJDH) calls the UAE authorities to:
1. Respect the right of citizens to enjoy freedom of expression in accordance with the Constitution and its ratification charters
2. Undertake reforms in the media sector and amend the legislative framework to conform to international law
3. Review the law on cybercrime of 2012 and repeal restrictive and abusive sections
4. Release all prisoners of conscience judged because of their exercise of freedom of expression guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Arab Charter on Human Rights
5. Take urgent measures to alleviate the deteriorating situation of human rights in the country and judge the executioners and torturers
6. Implement its commitments made at the Council of Human Rights, particularly point: 128-106 requiring the repeal of the federal law of 1980 on publications and modify all other laws to ensure compliance with the disposition of international law on human rights related to freedom of expression
7. Ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), adopted in 1966
8. Up control over the media organs and internet
9. Stop unfair trials against users of social networks on the basis of their opinions