Introduction and scope
In July 2017, new Cabinet Resolution No. 23 of 2017 Concerning Media Content (the Media Resolution) came into force in the UAE. While the new Media Resolution does not introduce substantially different requirements from the existing laws and regulations in place governing published content in the UAE (for example, sensitivities regarding certain subject areas and practices are reiterated), it does expressly expand the ambit of UAE media-specific regulation to pertain to digital content production and distribution.
The Media Resolution casts a wide net over the type of content and media activity it purports to regulate, essentially capturing all forms of digital media, whether published, distributed or circulated in the UAE by media companies or individuals. The Media Resolution also applies to any "Media Content" arising from "Media Activity" carried out in the UAE, where "Media Activity" is defined specifically to include the dissemination and distribution of any "printed, digital, audio and visual information" and "Media Content" is defined as "any information or messages, express or implied, contained or referred to, directly or indirectly…whether broadcast directly or recorded then broadcast, …or delivered to the public by any means." The Media Resolution also expressly applies to media free zones.
The Media Resolution imposes a number of standards on all media content. Many of these standards reflect standards already contemplated in other UAE laws and regulations, such as the UAE Penal Code, Cybercrimes Law, Press Law and various media free zone regimes. However, the key distinction is that now the Media Resolution has ushered in a media-specific legal regime that expressly applies these standards on a UAE federal level to both printed and digital content – whereas some of the provisions under other regimes were much more printed-material centric.
Just some of the key content standards in the Media Resolution require that any media content must: (i) respect Islamic and religious beliefs; (ii) respect the State and its cultural heritage, symbols and institutions; (iii) not contain anything that harms national unity or security or the economy of the State; (iv) not cause harm to vulnerable members of society; and (v) respect intellectual property rights. Furthermore, media content must respect the privacy of individuals and all matters related to the private lives of individuals, and must not incite or promote crimes or illegal activities or spread false news. The National Media Council (the NMC) also expressly has the right to establish other criteria and controls in the future.
Website Censorship Committee and age classification requirements
The Media Resolution also establishes a committee that will be responsible for ensuring websites do not violate the principles and standards set out therein (the Website Censorship Committee). The Website Censorship Committee will be comprised of representatives from the Ministry of Interior, the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority and the National Electronic Security Authority. These representatives will make recommendations as to which websites should be blocked in the UAE, which keywords should be banned, and other procedural aspects for banning websites or lifting bans on websites. Similar to the permit requirement, it is unclear how this will apply in practice. Considering the sheer amount of content available through various media outlets, coupled with the inherent nature of digital forms of media to effectively transcend geographic boundaries, it has yet to be seen how the Website Censorship Committee will oversee and enforce the requirements of the Media Resolution.
In addition to extensive content standards, the Media Resolution charges the NMC with the responsibility of establishing age classification criteria for any media content that requires an age rating. For example, these age classification criteria will be applied to books, video games and films – and such age classifications must be clearly and prominently marked on the media content or any advertising or promotional materials surrounding it.
Under the Media Resolution, it is prohibited to print, circulate or bring any publication into the UAE until a permit has been granted for the media content in the context of the proposed Media Activity in which it will be used . Notably, the Media Resolution establishes both a "Circulation Permit" and a "Printing Permit", which enable the holder to engage in each respective activity in connection with the specific Media Content.
The NMC may suspend or prohibit the printing or circulation of any publication within the UAE, and impose penalties (which may include temporary closure of the offending establishment in the case of repeated offences) against the publisher/distributor where violations of this aspect of the Media Resolution are committed. It is not clear, however, from the text of the Media Resolution whether this requirement will also apply (or purport to apply) to publishers based outside the UAE releasing or making available content to users in the UAE. Furthermore, it is unclear whether a permit will be required for each individual piece of digital content, or whether publishers may be granted "umbrella" type permits, covering an array of digital media within a certain category of content or activity.
The Media Resolution has officially brought digital media into the scope of federally regulated content in the UAE under a more consolidated regime. While we have seen many of the same themes repeated in the Media Resolution as we have seen in past laws and regulations, the new regime is an indication of a more compliance-driven (and potentially more administratively burdensome approach) for market participants and regulators alike. With new digital content being pushed every second through the internet and from providers around the world, it will be interesting to see how the NMC will govern digital media content and enforce the requirements under the Media Resolution, and whether or not further guidance will be issued to help market participants more clearly understand the whereabouts of the practical and procedural compliance goalposts.