Draft for a Common Arab Press and Publications Law [Archives:2001/29/Law & Diplomacy]

July 16 2001

Mohamed Sadiq
Head of Administrative Affairs, Yemen Journalist Syndicate
The press freedom violations report for 2000 that was published on the pages of Yemen Times in a series of 6 articles during May has resulted in tremendous response from many readers in Yemen and abroad who have contributed their opinions and comments by email and mail letters.
Apart from that, the series sparked a strong response from local readers including Arab and foreign diplomats interested in the development of democracy and press freedom in Yemen. This response was mostly resembled by the tens of telephone calls to the headquarters of the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate (YJS) commenting on the series.
The reports issued by local and international press freedom supporting organizations such as Article 19, Committee to Protect Journalists, International Press Institute, Journalists Sans Frontiers, etc. are an indication that we need to enhance the press laws in Yemen.
The conditions in Yemen are not as extreme as one may think. However, that doesn’t mean that things are going on the right path. The country is still suffering -as seen in the YSP report- of many press freedom violations.
Since the multi-party system was founded and press freedom took off in Yemen following unification in 1990, reasonable progress has been made. However, one needs to realize that freedom of press and expression only came as a result of unification as it was a vital and important condition for the forming of a new united country. In other words, it was the only way to have two formerly ruling parties share power.
In the last few years however, the conditions of press freedom have proven to deteriorate as could be witnessed from the reports issued by local and international organizations. The deterioration started specifically after the 1994 civil war between the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) lead by Ali Saleh Al-Beidh and the partner ruling party the General People’s Congress (GPC) along with Islah. The war was devastating as it resulted in the killing and injury of thousands from both sides and caused tremendous damage to the economy.
However, after the end of the war, the regime started holding stronger to power without competition. The balance that was available before the war ended and now all the decisions for the future of the country lied in the hands of the GPC.
The suffering of press freedom rose sharply afterwards attributing that the monopolizing of power. This was proven by the many different reports on the conditions of press freedom since 1994 until today. The journalism community started panicking after witnessing a decline in the level of freedom of expression and an increase of verdicts and closures of newspapers despite the fact that the same laws that were formed in 1990 after unification (including law 25 of 1990) were still applicable.
One of the reasons for this deterioration observers say is the weakening of the judicial system in the country. This was quite evident in the incidents that involved actions by the Ministry of Information to motivate its own organs to file lawsuits against newspapers putting them in risk of being closed down or suspended.
Interestingly, the lawsuits were based on normal civil crimes that were actually not applicable to the press, but which the courts upheld leading to punishing newspapers and their editors with severe sentences that should not apply for the press.
One of the measures that had a significant affect in discouraging the freedom of press was criminal law 12 of 1994 which established the basis of criminalizing journalists and considering the right to express one’s ideas as a crime. The article was subtitled “Crimes of publicity and publication.” It had also categorized the different expressed ideas as crimes in different levels, some deserving severe punishments.
Despite all that, one could only agree with Mr. Salahhaddin Hafidh the General Secretary of the Cairo-based Arab Journalist Union (AJU) who said, “In 2000, no Arab journalist was assassinated for political and job-oriented reasons, except for the murder of Kuwaiti Journalist Ms. Hidaya Al-Salim. On the other hand, the world witnessed 32 assassinations of journalists in 2000, 36 in 1999, and 19 in 1998. However, the conditions of press freedom in the Arab world -Yemen being on top of the list- are still unsatisfactory and journalists suffer from several problems and increasing obstacles and challenges. This resulted in the condemnation of the policies of the Arab governments by international organizations supporting and defending human rights and press freedom.”
AJU, which has 19 countries in its membership (all Arab countries except Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Oman) continues to exert much effort to enhance the conditions of press freedom in the Arab world. The union is trying to convince Arab countries to approve the common Arab press and publications law, which was approved by the union’s 9th assembly held in October 2000 in Amman. In its last assembly held under the chairmanship of Mr. Ibrahim Nafi’ in the beginning of 2001 in Cairo, the union decided to double its efforts to convince Arab governments to adjust the available laws that in fact hinder the progress of those respected nations in terms of press freedom.
It is not difficult to conclude that many of the violations committed against the free press are due to the misinterpretation of the vague articles and regulations in the press law of the Republic of Yemen and the Arab world. Hence, it only comes natural for efforts to be exerted to try to enhance this law. In this article, I provide the draft for the common Arab press and publications law to regulate all the affairs of the press in the Arab world. This new law will probably help in gradually improve the status of freedom of expression in the Arab world, which is known for its strict limitations and vicious violations of press freedom.
Regarding Yemen, AJU expressed its satisfaction with and welcomed the dialogue between the YJS and the Yemeni government to use the drafted law to enhance the currently used press law. The union requested called in the chairman and the general secretary of the union to follow up with this issue between the YJS and the government and perhaps travelling to Yemen as encouragement for the effort exerted by both sides. It is expected that the two figures will arrive to Yemen next month.
The law proposed by AJU consists of 32 legislative articles -contrary to Yemen’s law which consists of 158 procedures and a series of articles accompanying them. The articles define and regulate journalism and the establishment and running of newspapers, present the obligations and rights of journalists, and openly and specifically describes the red lines and publishing crimes and how lawsuits should be filed.
It is worth mentioning that the project was a result of several proposed drafts including the Egyptian and Jordanian Journalist Syndicates.
The final draft was prepared by Mr. Hani Dahla, and was scripted by Mr. Mohamed Noor Farahat, a profession of law in the Egyptian University and a Legal Consultant of AJU.
Below is the complete unofficial translation of the draft introduced for a truly free press in the Arab world.
Draft Law to be published next week