Digital Media Now Firmly within the UAE’s Regulatory Scope
In July 2017, the UAE Cabinet issued Resolution No. (23) of 2017 Concerning Media Content (the Regulations), which came into force at the end of August 2017.
The UAE has consolidated its laws regulating media content. Previously, these rules had been spread out across a number of different laws and resolutions, but now the Regulations codify a complete set of mandatory rules for all types of Media Content to abide by.
The Regulations bring about 3 key changes:
- Specific regulation of digital media - the vast array of digital media offered by OTT providers in the UAE (such as e-books, music streaming services, and on-demand film and TV) is now clearly within scope of national content laws and subject to censorship and pre-approval by the National Media Council (NMC). The NMC is expressly entrusted with actively regulating media in the digital / electronic space, having previously focused mainly (although not exclusively) on hard copy sales of items like books and DVDs.
- A stricter playing field - the legislation indicates that tolerance levels for media content in the UAE are at an all time low. We may see a period of increased scrutiny over online compliance, as the newly formed 'Website Censorship Committee' adopts a more wide-spread and pervasive approach to blocking non-conforming websites.
- The role of NESA - this is the first piece of legislation that actively acknowledges the role of the National Electronic Security Authority (NESA). Up to now, the activities and responsibilities of NESA had been unclear. However, this is the first legislative example where we see NESA being brought together with the TRA for a role on the Website Censorship Committee.
Application of the new Regulations
The Regulations specifically aim to regulate media content within the context of "Media Activities", which are broadly defined as "any activities relating to the production, transfer, broadcast, distribution and transmission of the printed, digital, audio and visual information, including activities of press, print, audio-visual broadcasting and film activities, and any other relevant activities specified by the [National Media] Council."
What do the Regulations say?
The Regulations list a set of strict standards which all media content in the UAE must comply with. By way of example, these rules include that all content must:
- respect the divinity of God, Islamic beliefs, the divinely revealed religions and other beliefs, and must not defame any of them, including non-incarnation, of prophets and apostles;
- respect the regime of governance in the State, its symbols and institutions, as well as the supreme interests of the State and society;
- respect privacy rules and all matters related to the private lives of individuals;
- not publish or circulate anything that might incite crimes, such as encouraging murder, rape, drug and psychotropic substances abuse, drinking, gambling, magic, smoking, sorcery and astrology; and
- not publish, broadcast or circulate statements, images, drawings or opinions that violate the integrity of public morality or are offensive to rising generation or advocate the propagation or promotion of destructive principles or the principles that would mislead the public.
These rules essentially re-iterate the existing standards for media content in the UAE, which could previously be found across legislations such as NMC Resolution No. 20 of 2010, the 1980 Publications and Publishing Law and the 2012 Cybercrime Law. However, it is now the clear intention of the NMC to apply these rules to all types of media in the UAE (printed and digital).
Requirement for a NMC Permit for Publications
The Regulations make clear that a permit is required from the NMC before a 'publication' (which includes all forms of digital media) may be circulated within the UAE. The Regulations lay out the process under which an application can be made to the NMC for a permit, after which the NMC may decide to approve the publication in question, approve with mandatory censorship, or prohibit circulation entirely.
This formalizes the existing process and confirms the practical steps required in order to submit material to the NMC for review and request a media permit. Again, the interesting new dynamic here is the fact that providers of digital media are now expressly required to obtain a permit from the NMC under the new Regulations.
Specific Regulation of Electronic Media Activities
All Electronic Media Activities (aka. "media activity that is practised through electronic publishing tools and means"), whether licensed by the NMC or not, are made expressly subject to (a) censorship, (b) the principles and standards of media content, and (c) the terms and conditions of the Regulations.
The NMC is made expressly responsible for setting the age classification criteria for the media content of all publications that require a rating - in particular books, video games and films.
Website Censorship Committee
The NMC will form a new 'Website Censorship Committee', together with representatives of each of the Ministry of Interior, the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) and the National Electronic Security Authority (NESA).
This Committee will be tasked with taking the necessary measures to ensure that websites do not violate the principles and standards of media content set out in the legislation, and shall submit recommendations on issues such as websites to be blocked and keyword searches to be banned when using the Internet.
The new Regulations do not bring about much tangible change to the regulatory landscape, generally consolidating the UAE's existing content rules and licensing requirements. The key takeaway is that digital media is now very much in scope, when previously it had been subject to somewhat "light touch" regulation (in practice at least).
Nonetheless, despite the seemingly stricter regulations, it is still to be seen how this legislation will play out in reality. The legislation does not address the issue of enforcement against offshore OTT / media providers who deliver digital content to UAE-based customers via the internet, and whether such overseas providers could apply for a permit from the NMC without having a local presence in the UAE.
Similarly, it is questionable whether the NMC truly has the capacity to review, censor and licence each and every 'publication' currently on offer through the on-demand libraries of some of the largest media content providers, especially considering much of this content is already in circulation within the UAE via digital means without formal NMC approval.