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Thu 27 Sep 2007 10:52 AM

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A step in the write direction

In a victory for freedom of the press, Sheikh Mohammed has decreed journalists will not be jailed for their work.

In a notable victory for freedom of the press in the UAE, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, has issued instructions that journalists in the country will not be jailed for reasons related to their work. It's not an invitation to anarchy, by any means, as there are other measures that may be taken against journalists who break the press and publication law. However, it is a bold step in keeping with the progressive nature of Dubai, and one that other Middle East states may come under pressure to imitate.

Egypt in particular has faced criticism over the decision to jail the editor and two reporters of an opposition newspaper, for libeling President Hosni Mubarak and his ruling National Democratic Party. Each was sentenced to two years in jail for "damaging the image of justice" in a case relating to articles the newspaper published last year, while the sentencing comes just a month after a Cairo court handed four editors of independent newspapers one year in jail each after finding them guilty of slandering senior officials within the ruling party. In response, the White House has said it is "deeply concerned" by the conviction and sentencing, the Egyptian Press Syndicate has condemned it as a "declaration of war" on the press, and Amnesty International has protested against the trial, describing it as part of a continuous series of attacks against free press in the country.

While the accusations fly across Um El Dunya, it is undoubtedly a relief to know that those of us in the UAE can now write without any fear of imprisonment. It is the duty of a journalist to hold accountable those in a position of responsibility, and the knowledge that Sheikh Mohammed has chosen to support the UAE's media professionals will undoubtedly embolden journalists in their work.

Yet this liberty should not be taken for granted; it will have to be earned. Sheikh Mohammed's announcement does not relieve the pressure on media professionals in the Emirates. If anything, it intensifies it. While the directive reflects the leadership's support for the press and journalists, it also reminds us that journalists have a responsibility, not just to their readers, but also to their own profession. As Abraham Lincoln most memorably put it, freedom is not the right to do what we want, but what we ought - and only by championing accurate, balanced reporting will we tempt more of the region's governments to adopt a stance similar to the UAE's.

In a few decades' time, when the astonishing evolution of the UAE as an economic and social powerhouse can be placed properly in context, Sheikh Mohammed's decision to support the freedom of the press might be seen as a key moment in the maturation of the region. It's up to us, as journalists, not to waste the opportunity.