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Court overturns journalists' convictions on libel charges; website owner fined, given suspended sentence

(RSF/IFEX) - On 8 November 2007, Reporters Without Borders welcomed a Dubai appeal court's decision to overturn the convictions of Shimba Kassiril Ganjadahran, the former editor of the English-language "Khaleej Times", and one of his reporters, Mohsen Rashed, on charges of libel. The two journalists had been sentenced on 24 September to two months in prison for a story about a Dubai woman's lawsuit against her husband that led to his imprisonment.

Their acquittal comes a few weeks after the ruler of Dubai said journalists should not be imprisoned because of their work. His statement had the immediate force of law.

"The release of the 'Khaleej Times' journalists confirms the positive evolution seen in the press freedom situation in Dubai during the past two years," Reporters Without Borders said. "However, the press law still needs revision and we urge the government to include the decriminalization of press offences in the bill currently being considered. This reform, the first of its kind in the Gulf, should also apply to the electronic media."

Rashed told Reporters Without Borders that the ruler of Dubai's statement had influenced the appeal court's decision. He added that he thought the decree would be incorporated into the new press law.

Meanwhile, in a libel case in the nearby emirate of Ras Al Khaima, a criminal court has passed a suspended sentence of a year in prison and a fine of 50,000 dirhams (approx.10,000 euros) on the owner of the website, Mohamed Al-Shehhi, although the plaintiff withdrew his complaint on 30 October.

The website has been forced to close for good under article 16 of the electronic press law. This was the sixth complaint to be brought against since 1 August. All these prosecutions have been widely criticised by bloggers and website owners, who are calling for the law governing websites to be brought into line with the print media law.

The main problem for press freedom continues to be the self-censorship practised by most newspapers, which eschew any criticism of the government in order to avoid prosecution.

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