Is Your Content Legal? A Q&A with Al Tamimi’s Fiona Robertson

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If your content is in breach of the UAE’s laws, you may find yourself in the courthouse (maybe not with Matthew McConaughey, however).

There’s few people who know more about media laws that Al Tamimi’s Fiona Robertson, who has strived to raise awareness of legislation that impacts those working in communications and marketing. I had the fortune of sitting down with Fiona, to talk content. I started by asking, what is legal and illegal when it comes to content.

Fiona: All content must comply with the print and publications law, which was first published in 1980 and then expanded upon by and executive resolution in the 2000s. This law applies to all media, and how it is distributed, including online. The other law people need to be aware of is the Cybercrimes law of 2012.

These laws include a list of issues which are off-limits, such as criticizing UAE culture, the UAE government, Islam and any subject which could bring disrepute to the country. In relation to the Cybercrimes law, the penalties are stiff, with up to 500,000 AED in fines as well as jail terms. Anyone who is prosecuted and found guilty under the 2012 Cybercrimes law and who is not a national will be deported.

There was a case a couple of weeks ago where a media outlet didn’t obtain the correct releases for material. This material was published on a website, and the two hosts of the show were deported. When these laws are broken, there are serious consequences.

Q: Are enough publishers, brands or agencies aware of these laws?

Fiona: We don’t see enough awareness that people are concerned about this. We get to do pre-publication compliance review for foreign brands, who often approach us, but not for local brands. People don’t realize the laws are there, as they’re not well publicized.

Q: Who oversees these laws?

Fiona: It’s the National Media Council, and Telecoms Regulatory Authority who have the power to block websites.

Q: So how are these laws applicable to social media and social media influencers?

Fiona: The provisions of the Cybercrimes law does not specify who is liable for the content. The brand, the publisher, the agency or the author could be liable for the content under the Cybercrimes act. It could the content producer, the influencer. It could be the owner of the blog. If it’s on a Facebook site, then it could be you or the brand as the account owner. In the recent case which I referred to above, the authorities prosecuted nine parties for one action which was considered to be against the Cybercrimes act.

Q: Wouldn’t the platforms, the likes of Facebook, Snap or Twitter, potentially be liable?

Fiona: Potentially, yes, they could be liable. Most are based outside of the UAE’s jurisdiction so it becomes difficult to apply sanctions against a foreign entity. But the TRA could block their sites for being in breach of the UAE’s content regulations, as they do with materials relating to topics such as gambling.

Q: So what should brands and agencies do in terms of making sure that content is legal?

Fiona: There’s several laws that brands, agencies and publishers should be aware of, including both the Cybercrimes laws and the National Media Council advertising regulations. Familiarity is the most important thing. I’m still alarmed by the number of people who tell me there’s no media laws here, where there clearly are. Start there, train your staff to know what the big red flags are in relation to content, so they’re picked up before the content goes into production.

There’s not only legal issues, but also the reputational issues. Today, UAE nationals will take to social media to make complaints and disparage brands. Sometimes the issue isn’t so much legal as it is reputational. An issue is better resolved before it becomes a problem.

Q: Is producing content in Arabic more difficult than in English?

Fiona: Foreign brands and producers may not understand the culture of the region well. They may not understand the reality versus perception, and we’re often asked to help review not just from a legal perspective but also a cultural one. Having said that, the biggest advertising fail in the last 12 months was Arabic language content produced by Arabic speakers for an Arabic country.

It’s not me, it’s you – Who Censored the Wolf of Wall Street?

Want swearing, sex and other obscene moments in your film? Then you’re best heading to Beirut (image source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com)

I’m a very nostalgic person. I remember the good old days when the internet was all about dots and beeps, when a gourmet burger could be found in a Happy Meal and when newspapers came with columns inked out by a black marker. Censorship isn’t a foreign concept to the Gulf region. Be it television, printed media or, more recently, the internet, censorship is a given. I sometimes wondered about the rooms of employees who’d be sitting in a room reading over the foreign papers with their thick, fat marker pens ready and eager to put market to paper on a large section of the paper.

Rarely do we hear from those people behind the censorship. However, the past couple of days have thrown a light on the world of censorship in the region. The latest Martin Scorsese film, The Wolf of Wall Street, is a tale of financial excesses with an over-excessive use of expletives, sex, drugs and other naughty things. It’s not surprising that such a film may cause flutters, especially in a conservative part of the world. While most of the country’s cinema-goers would have expected cuts here and there, the film ended up losing 45 minutes from its three-hour running time.

Local media reported on the incident, including a wonderful piece by Rory Jones, the UAE-based correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. As the piece is so fun I’m going to quote directly from Mr Jones.

Whole scenes were taken out of the Martin Scorsese-directed movie, including a particularly raucous trip to Las Vegas that included a plane full of prostitutes. The F-word has also been removed where possible, creating an almost constant jerking of the screen as one frame has been spliced into another.

Somewhat understandably, film-goers in the U.A.E. have taken to social media to vent their anger over the cuts, warning others not to see the film as most cinemas are not making viewers aware of the level of censorship.

As Mr Jones and others such as Gulf News’ tabloid! have pointed out, cinema releases are supposed to be censored by the National Media Council. In this case, the NMC has pointed the finger at the film’s distributor, Gulf Film. Why the distributor would want to annoy cinema-goers to the point that they tell others not to see the film and demand refunds from the cinema firms is beyond me. Gulf Film haven’t commented. One official from the NMC did speak however and here’s what he told tabloid!:

Juma Obaid Al Leem, director of the Media Content Tracking Department at the NMC told tabloid! the cuts were made even before it came under their review.

“We didn’t touch the film. The distributor already made the cut [when it came to us]. When we asked the distributors, they said they cut all those scenes and words, because they want to distribute the film in GCC,” he said.

Al Leem added that, following complaints from moviegoers, the NMC has instructed distributors to leave the editing to them.

“[We have told them] next time, don’t touch the film. We will make the cuts. We will decide. Maybe some scenes will be accepted. Don’t make any cut outside till they bring the full film and we will decide about the film,” he said. “We told them very clearly.”

Ironically, the film has been released in its entirety in Lebanon. It seems that nothing can offend the Lebanese cinema-goer, not even the Wolf of Wall Street. As for the UAE, we’ll have to put up with only two-thirds of a film. A wolf in sheep’s clothing anyone?

Is the media a government tool or an independent voice – thoughts from Abu Dhabi

Freedom of expression or expression of national institutions? We’re still very much in the latter camp in the Middle East (image credit: http://www.menassat.com)

There was a fairly low key but important discussion this week in the UAE’s Federal National Council. The body, the closest thing that the UAE has to a parliament, welcomed Shaikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the country’s Foreign Minister, to discuss the issues of the media and the work of the National Media Council, the UAE’s regulatory body for the sector.

The below excerpts are from an article in Gulf News which ran this week. Have a read through the quotes:

The National Media Council came under fire from the House for its “weak role in [the] Emiratisation of the media, dominance of foreign media content and lack of plans to promote the [UAE’s] cultural identity.”

The NMC was also criticised for the lack of coordination between the media outlets and universities, lack of training programmes for journalists and broadcasters, and a failure by media outlets to address concerns of citizens.

The FNC also voiced concern over the UAE’s low ranking in the press freedom index. Ali Jasem, a member from Umm Al Quwain, said the UAE ranked 158th on the Press Freedom Index last year.

Shaikh Abdullah said he expected that the ranking will improve once the new media law is issued with an article that bans jailing journalists for exercising their duties.

Shaikh Abdullah said discussions in the FNC lacked a uniform stand on the issue of freedom of expression.
“Some members demand a higher ceiling of freedom and less control, while others call for censorship, which is confusing,” Shaikh Abdullah said.

Shaikh Abdullah reiterated that the NMC respected the editorial policies of all media outlets operating in the country and that it never intervened in their work or nature of their content.

“The country’s policy is to leave the executive work to the media outlets, whether owned by the local governments or the private sector, so that there will be no contradiction between [the NMC’s] work and theirs,” he added.

Shaikh Abdullah said media outlets are “our partners and they are wholeheartedly contributing to the UAE’s media strategies.

It’s fairly common in the Middle East for the media to be seen as a tool of government policy. The media reiterates the government line and rarely engages in debate. This viewpoint hasn’t changed much despite attempts by global media outlets, newswires such as Reuters and Bloomberg, to write uncensored about a range of social, political and cultural issues.

What’s noticable from the above is that even in a country which is fairly media-friendly by the standards of the Middle East there’s still a view that the media needs to be an instrument of policy which ‘promotes cultural and national identity.’ I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have been raised in a part of the world where a strong, independent media fosters debate, promotes transparency and holds others to account. How far are we from this state of affairs in the Middle East? Your guess is as good as mine. However, in the meantime I’ll keep flying the flag for a media sector that has the teeth to do its job and act as an independent voice for discussion, debate and originality.