In brief: media law and regulation in United Arab Emirates – Lexology

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Media
Summarise the regulatory framework for the media sector in your jurisdiction.
The principal source of law in relation to the media sector in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is Federal Law No. 15 of 1980 Concerning Publications and Publishing (the Media Law). The law covers a large number of regulations on the media including ownership, prohibitions on certain types of reporting and defamation.
Originally under the Media Law, the Ministry of Culture and Information was the national media regulator. In 2006, Cabinet Resolution No. 14/2006 abolished the Ministry and established a new regulator for the media industry, the National Media Council (NMC), which has now been replaced by the Media Regulatory Office (MRO) in 2021 following the merger of the NMC and the Federal Youth Authority. As well as being the regulator, it is tasked to prepare research and foresight studies relating to the media sector and aims to combat false news and unprofessional media practices.
The Media Law is widely considered to be out of date owing to its obvious focus on print (rather than digital) media. In 2009, a draft revision to the Media Law was circulated, but the content was criticised for being overly restrictive, containing heavy penalties for journalists, and still failing to update the law sufficiently for the digital age and it was eventually shelved. In theory, it could still be signed into law at any time, but this is considered unlikely.
In 2010, the Chairman of the NMC Resolution No. 20 of 2010 (the Chairman Resolution) was issued, which stated that all media, including audio, visual and print forms, must comply with the content of the Media Law. This both reiterated the primacy of the Media Law and confirmed its application beyond the printed media the law envisaged.
The Media Law contains restrictions on content that can be published, including:
 
The UAE has a history of trying to regulate social-media influencers. In March 2018, the Electronic Media Activity Regulation Resolution 2018 (the EMR) was published, which regulates a wide range of digital media activities including websites that sell content and individuals who seek to monetise their social media popularity by way of an annual licence arrangement. National Media Council Circular No. 13/2020 was then issued to further clarify rules on advertisements on social media including the need for the advertisement to use non-confusing language and restrictions on advertising health-related products, drugs and other pharmaceuticals.
There are also relevant provisions relating to media found in the Penal Code, particularly in regard to defamation, and Federal Decree-Law No. 34/2021 Concerning the Fight Against Rumours and Cybercrime (the Cybercrime Law), when considering digital communications.
Across the UAE there are various media-related free zones that have their own civil regimes, while still being subject to the same criminal restrictions as the main jurisdictions. Many national and international media companies are established in these zones.
Do any foreign ownership restrictions apply to media services? Is the ownership or control of broadcasters otherwise restricted? Are there any regulations in relation to the cross-ownership of media companies, including radio, television and newspapers?
Article 25 of the Media Law and the resolutions by the MRO provide that the owner of a newspaper must:
 
Many media outlets are owned, in whole or in part, by the government or prominent local families closely aligned with the government.
There are also certain academic and experience qualification requirements for editors-in-chief and standard writers and journalists, although these are typically not enforced in practice.
The EMR set out requirements of applicants for the licensing regime as well as the mandatory appointment of a ‘responsible manager’ to act as a representative, although breaches of the EMR by an applicant or licensee do not extend to liability on the part of this responsible manager. There is no requirement in the EMR for the responsible manager to be a UAE national.
What are the licensing requirements for broadcasting, including the fees payable and the timescale for the necessary authorisations?
Under the Media Law, all newspapers and news agencies are required to hold a licence before they can be published. The resolutions issued by the MRO have made clear that they consider this to apply to all forms of media outlets in the UAE, not just the printed media.
The proposed news media outlet must apply to the MRO, requesting the granting of such a licence. This can be done online via the MRO’s website and must include details of the owner and the proposed media outlet brand. Applications must be in Arabic. The MRO will review the application and, if it is in favour of the licence being granted, will support the application in front of the federal government. The federal government must then approve the application and grant the licence.
The Media Law provides for an applicant to deposit a guarantee of 50,000 UAE dirhams for an application for a newspaper and 20,000 UAE dirhams for other media outlets to be paid along with the application. Fines imposed will be removed from this deposit, which must then be topped up to maintain its original level. The MRO can also charge a range of service fees ranging from 500 UAE dirhams to 100,000 UAE dirhams, dependent on the type of licence sought and the activities covered.
The EMR also set out an annual licensing regime for electronic media activities that have variable fees depending on the category of the regulated activity, the most expensive of which being electronic or online accounts and websites, including specialised ones (commercials, advertising, news, etc), which attract a new application processing fee of 15,000 UAE dirhams and the same amount for a renewal.
Are there any regulations concerning the broadcasting of foreign-produced programmes? Do the rules require a minimum amount of local content? What types of media fall outside this regime?
There are no specific regulations preventing the broadcasting of foreign-produced programmes, providing that they do not contain any content that is not permitted under the Media Law. There are also no official requirements in relation to the minimum amount of local content.
How is broadcast media advertising regulated? Is online advertising subject to the same regulation?
The Media Law contains several restrictions on advertising similar to those found in many other nations, although unlike in jurisdictions that rely largely on self-regulation, advertising standards are enforced by the MRO.
Prohibited advertisements include those that are ‘inconsistent with public conduct’, a phrase capable of covering a broad range of cultural sensitivities including inappropriate dress or behaviour. It also prohibits adverts that mislead the public, could cause harm to the state or the value of society or contain subversive ideas.
The MRO also issued an official advertising guide in 2018 that consolidates various principles on advertisements in the UAE and protects local religious, cultural and social values and improves the freedom of expression of the media.
The EMR address electronic advertisements, including the use of digital social media and imposes a broad licensing requirement on those involved in such online advertising.
The Telecoms and Digital Government Regulatory Authority (TDRA) Consumer Protection Regulations also contain restrictions on the advertising of products or services regulated under Federal Law No. 3 of 2003 Regarding the Organisation of the Telecommunications Sector. These include the requirement to be able to evidence to the TDRA’s satisfaction any statements or claims made in the advertisement, whether direct or implied and restrictions on the form of comparative advertising.
Federal Law No. 15/2020 On Consumer Protection also prohibits misleading advertisement whether it relates to the price or the description of the goods. Further, advertisements related to consumers shall be made in Arabic (including other languages in addition to Arabic).
Are there regulations specifying a basic package of programmes that must be carried by operators’ broadcasting distribution networks? Is there a mechanism for financing the costs of such obligations?
There are no official must-carry obligations in the UAE. In line with the requirements on the media not to insult or harm the state and for official news reporting to be undertaken through a centralised, state-controlled function, certain state media content will sometimes unofficially be required to be included as part of the schedule. Also, local broadcast media channels will observe mourning content (eg, soft music or recitation of the Koran) in circumstances where there has been a death of a royal or some other nationally observed tragic event.
Is new media content and its delivery regulated differently from traditional broadcast media? How?
There is no distinction in the Media Law between different types of media content according to their delivery. The Chairman Resolution specifically confirmed the application of the Media Content across different forms of delivery. In July 2017, the UAE Cabinet issued Resolution No. 23 of 2017 concerning media content consolidated content rules and extended these specifically to digital content and then, more recently, the EMR establish a licensing and compliance framework for digital media (including licensure relating to social-media influencers).
On 9 September 2020, the MRO issued National Media Council Circular No. 13/2020, a circular regarding social-media advertisements emphasising the need to obtain prior approval from the Media Licensing Department. This will impact companies, brands, influencers, and anyone who carries out social-media advertising activities on a commercial basis. Further, the circular sheds more light on the regulation of advertising on social media including the need for the product to be authentic and not exaggerated and not cause confusion with other similar names. The identity of the advertisement must be clear and distinctive from other materials presented; for example, phrases like ‘paid advertisement’ as opposed to ‘in collaboration with’ should be used to make it clear that the advertisement is commercial or not.
Ultimately, the fundamental principles behind the UAE’s regulation of traditional media and the UAE’s regulation of new media are not different.
When is the switchover from analogue to digital broadcasting required or when did it occur? How will radio frequencies freed up by the switchover be reallocated?
The switchover from analogue to digital broadcasting was completed in 2012 in coordination with other Gulf Cooperation Council states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
The additional radio capacity was allocated to improve mobile telephone services.
Does regulation restrict how broadcasters can use their spectrum?
No regulation restricts how broadcasters are permitted to use their spectrum allocation.
Is there any process for assessing or regulating media plurality (or a similar concept) in your jurisdiction? May the authorities require companies to take any steps as a result of such an assessment?
There is no official assessment or regulation of media plurality in the UAE. Many media service providers are owned or part-owned by the UAE government or members of prominent local families closely linked to the government.
The MRO oversees the content prepared by the media and any material that is considered to be undesirable is likely to be blocked. Particularly in a commentary in relation to the state, foreign affairs or Islam, journalists are likely to self-censor and a similar position will typically be taken across all media outlets. On controversial or sensitive issues, journalists will often take their lead from the single official government news agency, the Emirates News Agency operated by the MRO, and adopt identical reporting positions.
Provide a summary of key emerging trends and hot topics in media regulation in your country.
Notwithstanding the introduction of the EMR, there remains a general expectation that there will at some point be an overhaul of the legal framework surrounding the media in the UAE, in particular, to address digital media and journalist liability. There are no clear indications that this is likely to take place shortly or whether the 2009 draft media law would point to the likely outcome of such overhaul. Another key area to observe will be around the website censorship committee established through the MRO but with representatives from the Ministry of the Interior, the TDRA and the Signals Intelligence Agency.
The rise of social media has also spurred a slew of regulations looking to regulate this area and stop the spread of misinformation. Even the Cybercrime Law that came into force in January 2022 provides more protection against online crimes committed via social media networks and IT platforms. For example, the Cybercrime Law now penalises taking pictures of others without permission and also photographing victims of accidents or disasters and spreading the same. As social media becomes more integrated into everyday life, the increased regulatory scrutiny and enforcement of such laws will be one to watch in the coming years.
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