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Court closes independent website for one month, upholds fine on editor

(RSF/IFEX) - On 13 January 2010, a Dubai appeals court upheld the fine of 20,000 dirhams (approx. 3,755 euros) and damages of 10,000 dirhams (approx. 1,877 euros) that a lower court imposed on Ahmed Bin Gharib, the editor of the Hetta.com news website in a defamation suit brought by the Abu Dhabi Media Company over comments about alleged corruption posted by readers. The court also ordered the site closed for a month. Gharib intends to appeal to the country's highest court.

"The decision taken in this case against an independent news website is clearly disproportionate," Reporters Without Borders said. "Why close an entire website for a month when only a few comments posted by readers were at issue and only its editor was being blamed? And before going to court, why didn't the plaintiff ask Hetta.com's management to remove the comments in a spirit of conciliation?"

The press freedom organisation added: "The way this case has been handled is indicative of a desire to make an example out of the website, in order to intimidate anyone thinking of raising serious corruption issues in the future."

A Hetta.com article about alleged "administrative corruption" and "embezzlement" within the Abu Dhabi Media Company prompted a debate among the site's readers. There was nothing defamatory about most of the comments although the court ruled that they had defamed the plaintiff. The severity of the court's sentence despite the legitimacy of most of the comments raises questions about the influence that the company may have had over the court.

Reporters Without Borders contacted the Abu Dhabi Media Company and the Dubai authorities to ask the former to withdraw the complaint when the appeal was heard and the latter to quash the sentences on the grounds that it was in the public interest for free expression to be respected.

The United Arab Emirates is on the list of countries that are "under surveillance" by Reporters Without Borders because of measures it has taken that could pose a threat to online freedom of expression.

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