MediaRegulatory and institutional structure
Summarise the regulatory framework for the media sector in your jurisdiction.
The principal source of law in relation to the media sector in the UAE is Federal Law No. 15 of 1980 concerning Printing 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. Then in 2006, Cabinet Resolution No. 14/2006 abolished the Ministry and established a new regulator for the media industry, the National Media Council (the NMC). As well as being the regulator, it also operates the government’s official news agency.
The Media Law is now considered by many to be out of date owing to its obvious focus on print (rather than digital) media. In 2009 the NMC circulated a draft revision to the Media Law, but the content was criticised for being overly restrictive, containing heavy penalties for journalists, 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 in practice this is considered unlikely.
In 2010 the NMC issued a Chairman of the NMC Resolution No. 20 of 2010 (the Chairman Resolution), 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:
- criticising the government or rulers of the emirates or the UAE;
- material that could cause harm to the state interests or security;
- criticism of or disrespect to Islam;
- criticism of the rulers of any Islamic or friendly foreign state; or
- circulating or promoting subversive ideas.
In March 2018, the NMC published a set of regulations around electronic media (the EMR), 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.
There are also relevant provisions relating to media found in the Penal Code, particularly in regard to defamation, and the Cybercrime Law, when considering digital communications.
Across the UAE there are various media-related freezones 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.Ownership restrictions
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 NMC provide that the owner of a media service must:
- be a UAE national;
- be at least 25 years of age;
- be ‘fully competent’ to run the service;
- be of good character and behaviour;
- not have been convicted of certain offences relating to morality;
- not occupy a public service role; and
- not be employed by any foreign agency.
Many media outlets are owned, in whole or in part, by the government or powerful ruling families closely aligned with the government.
There are also certain academic and experience qualification requirements on editors-in-chief and standard writers and journalists, though these are typically not enforced in practice.
The recently introduced 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.Licensing requirements
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 NMC 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 NMC, requesting the granting of such a licence. This can be done online via the NMC’s website, and must include details of the owner and the proposed media outlet brand. Applications must be in Arabic. The NMC 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 dirham for an application for a newspaper and 25,000 dirham 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 NMC can also charge a range of service fees ranging from 3,000 dirham to 50,000 dirham, dependent on the type of licence sought and the activities covered.
The EMR also sets out an annual licensing regime for electronic media activities that has variable fees depending on the category of the regulated activity: the most expensive of the categories identified in the EMR is the electronic or online accounts and websites, including the specialised ones (commercials, advertising, news, etc), which attracts a new application processing fee of 15,000 dirham and the same amount for a renewal.Foreign programmes and local content requirements
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.Advertising
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, though unlike in jurisdictions that rely largely on self-regulation, advertising standards are enforced by the NMC.
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 EMR addresses electronic advertisements, including the use of digital social media and imposes a broad licensing requirement on those involved in such online advertising.
The TRA Customer Protection Regulations also contain restrictions on advertising of products or services regulated under the Telecoms Law. These include the requirement to be able to evidence to the TRA’s satisfaction any statements or claims made in the advertisement, whether direct or implied, and restrictions on the form of comparative advertising.Must-carry obligations
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?
No, 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 (see question 26), 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 Holy Quran) in circumstances where there has been a death of a royal or some other nationally observed tragic event.Regulation of new media content
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 established a licensing and compliance framework for digital media (including licensure relating to social media ‘influencers’). Ultimately, the fundamental principles behind the UAE’s regulation of traditional media and the UAE’s regulation of new media are not different.Digital switchover
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 completed in 2012, coordinated with other GCC states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
The additional radio capacity was allocated to improve mobile telephone services, such as next-generation 4G.Digital formats
Does regulation restrict how broadcasters can use their spectrum?
No, there is no regulation that restricts how broadcasters are permitted to use their spectrum allocation.Media plurality
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 the ruling families closely linked to the government.
The NMC oversees the content prepared by the media, and any material that is considered to be undesirable in likely to be blocked. Particularly in 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 NMC, and adopt identical reporting positions.Key trends and expected changes
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. Given the breadth of the EMR, we await feedback on its enforcement and the effect that the new licensing regime will have on the media industry. Another key area to observe will be around the website censorship committee established through the NMC but with representatives of each of the Ministry of the Interior, the TRA and the NESA.