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HRW and UAE Need to Understand Each Other

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Dr.Kenneth L. Wise

Senior Non-Resident Fellow -Public Policy

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Any new report about the UAE from the Human Rights Watch arrives under a shadow of suspicion.   However, the latest HRW report, on the draft Media Law, despite its he Human Rights Watch report Just the Good News, Please, despite its flaws, underscores fundamental, timely questions about the political development of the UAEflaws, underscores fundamental, timely questions about the political development of the UAE.  This makes the report worth a thoughtful read.
Nave from the outsetJust the Good News, Please: New Media Law Continues to Stifle Pressthis latest HRW report continues the nongovernmental organizations less than fair treatment of the UAE.  This title asserts that the discussion of changing the media law began in response to bad news published about the current economic downturn or arrests this past year for corruption in high places. 
For the record, HRW, the discussion began more than two years ago, during the height of the Dubai boom.  A second-level irony is that HRW does not appear to understand how a bill becomes a law in the UAE.  Its report refers continually to the legislationwhich it urges the UAE to amend.  If one hunts for a copy of the law, one finds, as did this author, that none exists.  It will not exist until the Cabinet, rulers, and the President and Prime Ministerwith the Federal National Councils advice arrive at consensus on what will be best for the country. 
If government officials are unable to achieve consensus on prospective provisions of the law, the law may never appear.  The west, thinking in majoritarian terms, tends not to appreciate the importance of consensus in the UAE political process. 
These irritations aside, the predictable response of some responsible officials of the UAE has been no less nave than HRW.   Preparing for the countrys next steps in political development is what raised awareness of the need for re-doing the 1980 media law.  This understanding grew out of the UAEs experience in its first election, in 2006. 
The public interest of the country is what pulls the government toward a new relationship between the government and the news media.   Thus, an official who accuses the HRW of interfering in UAE affairs, or of cultural intolerance, fails to understand the UAEs needs at its current stage of political development.   
That no new law is in a legislative record yet does not mean that the 1980 law remains in effect, with its objectionable jail penalty.  For example, last year Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum overturned the conviction of two journalists who, under the old law, would have gone to jail.  The UAE government, including the courts, took notice.  Thus journalists no longer face jail for acts they perform in their professional capacity.   
Because UAE law evolves in this fashion, official public comments deserve careful attention.  Thus, that some officials criticize the HRW report in the name of preserving culture risks giving short shrift to the direction of change that HRW urges. 
Foreign observers can understand UAE lawmakers desire to limit certain news media practices.  Defensible purposes are (1) to preserve the legitimacy of the leaders because that serves the interests of all persons in the UAE; without authority in leaders hands, social disorder could break out; and (2) to preserve the economic stability of the UAE (by punishing willfully malicious or criminally selfish actions that would injure the economic interests of all persons in the UAE). 
Yet, at an operational level, all persons in the UAE have other interests as well.  These interests seek to limit the governments interference in the normal professional activities of the news media.  This is so that the news media can provide timely, accurate, comprehensive pictures of the world that enable all persons in the UAE to contribute effectively to UAE security and prosperity and justice. 
What some officials in UAE government seem not to sense as being in their interest is how the news media can help govern (despite its sometimes frustrating nuisance quality).  All leaders in the UAE have a deep concern for the countrys reputation and, one presumes, in knowing the sentiments of their subjects.  Thus, government will benefit from welcoming the fourth estate into the majlis tent of consensus building. 
Government needs the news media
(1) to launch trial balloons that sample public reaction to policy options it is considering;
(2) to help the public feel that government hears its voice and cares;
(3) to facilitate the publics participation in landmark debates prior to the governments making a major shift in policysuch as its moves in recent years to increase individual human rights and broaden the electorate; and
(4) to energise the public into offering policy options rather than relying entirely on government to know what is best; public discussion can bring forth choices that discussion inside government had overlooked or had given a low priority. 
Public involvement via the news media means the government can operate with increased knowledge of what the public is thinking and how the public will react to government decisions.  The news media can help the government meet the traditional values and expectations of the majlis of old, where everyone had a say. 
This is the underlying goal of the HRW report which congratulates the UAE on the major steps it has already taken in finding a unique UAE route in a changing political order. 

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