Freedom of Speech and Expression – A Right That You Can Only Dream of in the UAE

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media
and regardless of frontiers”.

Article 19 – Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Freedom of Speech and Expression – a Basic Universal Human Right

Freedom of Speech and Expression was declared a basic right of every world citizen by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948 after a long struggle from human rights activists and revolutionaries. These were the main forces that fought against the tyrannies of various dictatorial regimes and as a result had to face various serious consequences. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the first document that sets out a list of basic human rights that need to be provided and protected all over the world, irrespective of any differences and hence, is considered as the biggest milestone in the history of human rights.

With the adoption of this declaration, all member states of the UN were asked to strive for providing the rights, mentioned in it, to their respective citizens. Later on, many other bodies, treaties, and laws also enforced the human rights outlined in the 1948 declaration.

Freedom of speech and expression is also one of the rights, the universal declaration provided to every world citizen. It was later enforced by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on December 16, 1966 as well.

The Problem

All the international efforts, laws and treaties have made freedom of speech and expression an important part of International Human Rights law and has provided citizens of all countries with a tool to raise their voice against the human rights abuse and other injustices committed by the ruling regime.

However, since the UN lack any mechanism to ensure the implementation or to keep a check upon its member states in any matter, numerous governments use their power, time and again, to limit certain rights that may pose threats to their hegemony. Freedom of speech is one of the rights that many countries try to limit as much as possible; United Arab Emirates being one of them.

Freedom of Speech and Expression in UAE

While the constitution of the United Arab Emirates has laid out laws regarding freedom of speech and expression, when it comes to implementation, it is also one of the many areas where the UAE government has failed to implement what it promises on paper, by adding a clause “within the limits set by the law”. This gives the UAE government the right to bend the human rights laws and declarations in its own interest in the name of ‘law’.

Hence, the country’s rules and governmental practices are in stark contrast with the guidelines set out by the United Nations,

For example, Article 30 of the constitution of the United Arab Emirates states:

“Freedom of opinion and expression in speech and writing, and all means of expression are guaranteed within the law."

Furthermore, the country is a signatory of the Charter of Human Rights that also guarantees all people the freedom of speech and expression and the right to information.

In spite of agreeing to provide this fundamental right to its citizens, the UAE government does not refrain from taking every possible measure to put restrictions upon every channel one could use to express opinions or to criticize the government; including all types of media.

Also, over time, the ruling elite of the UAE has passed various laws to obtain extra powers to control the lives of citizens including their freedom of speech. Not to mention, these laws are highly restrictive.

When it comes to implementation of these restrictive laws, it is one of those areas where the UAE government takes every possible measure to ensure that each and every law regulating the right to express opinions and views is implemented and strong measure be taken against the violators. To protect its hegemony and interest, the UAE’s ruling elite has never hesitated to use executive, legislation or even judiciary powers.

The Federal Law Number 15 that is pertinent to “Printed Matter and Publications”, adopted in 1980, is used to regulate Media in the country. It gives government the power to censor any and all publications before distribution. Also, this puts journalists under extreme difficulty in UAE. Not only it forbids the media from criticizing the country’s government, the rulers and their families, but also disproves any criticism over any foreign governments with whom the country enjoys friendly relations.  

If a journalist is found guilty of this, he/ she would be charged for committing a criminal offense. And, if he had used computer for committing this crime, he/ she would also face a trial under ‘the cybercrime law’, making the UAE’s press laws, one of the most highly restrictive in the entire Arab world.

UAE’s Cybercrime Law

The cybercrime law was first adopted in UAE during the year 2006 and was later amended in 2012 to give the government exclusive powers with regard to the regulation of social media and even emails. The UAE government can now prosecute anyone for any act that is considers as casting doubt about the political system of the country.

The cybercrime law, in Article 24, has declared any act that includes usage of internet for undermining social peace and/ or national unity as a ‘criminal act’.

Furthermore, Article 28 states acts that could lead to imprisonment and heavy penalty. Any ‘act’ that endangers or jeopardizes supreme interests, general safety, and/ or threatens to destabilize the public order falls under this category.

Article 28 of cybercrime law is only one of the many articles, clauses, and laws that are so broad and sue such generic language that they can be interpreted and applied to uncountable situations, giving the government unlimited power.

Federal Criminal Law

Cybercrime law is not the only document that has been formulated to secure the interests of the ruling elite and to protect their hegemony, the Federal Criminal Law also lies in the same vein. According to its article 176, the courts are allowed to send someone into imprisonment for as long as five years for an insulting act, committed publicly, towards the flag, the head of the state and/ or any of the national symbols.  

Article 8 of the Federal Criminal Law further extends the implementation of Article 176 by saying that same punishment would also be given to anyone who insults any of the members of Federal Council (called the Supreme Council of the Federation) and the Vice President.

Ground Reality

Although the constitution of the United Arab Emirates outlines several laws with regard to the provision of human rights, including the right for freely expressing view and opinions, the ground reality is in stark contrast with them.

The restrictions on the expressing one’s views and opinions with regard to any and all matters are highly strict. It can be understood from the fact that there are no political parties in UAE. One is not even allowed to oppose or disagree with the prevalent political system of the country.

Arbitrary arrest, detention and unfair trials are highly common. Anyone who in any way calls for greater rights and more freedom becomes a victim of the autocracy. This can be understood from the case of “UAE 5” i.e. Ahmed Mansoor, who was a blogger and a civil society activist, and his four associates. All five people were arrested in April 2011 just because they were asking for more freedom and political rights to be given to people living in UAE.

For publicly criticizing the governmental policies on a discussion forum on social media that the government had already blocked in February 2010, they were prosecuted under Articles 8 and 176 of the Federal Criminal Code. Despite the fact that the United Nation’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention passed a ruling against the arrest and detention, Ahmed Mansoor was given three years imprisonment and each his four associates were sentenced to two years imprisonment. Although they got released due to the Presidential Pardon, the very next day, the crimes (they were charged for) continued to appear in their criminal record. This case speaks volume about the restrictive nature of UAE’s laws regarding freedom of speech and expression, their interpretation according to government’s interest and how they are manipulated/ used to secure and serve the interests of the ruling elite.