The media regulatory landscape in the UAE has undergone significant structural changes in recent years but, until very recently, little substantive legislative change. The longstanding federal media regulator and licensing body, the National Media Council (“NMC”), previously active in issuing regulations and guidance, was replaced in 2021 by the Media Regulatory Office (“MRO”) at what was, at the time, the Ministry of Culture and Youth. The MRO was less publicly active than the NMC and, at the end of 2022, was replaced by the UAE Media Council (“Media Council”) as the overarching federal media regulator and licensing body. Whilst the Media Council has been established at law for over a year it remained, until recently, unclear how active it would be in comparison to its predecessors.
The answer came in October 2023 when after over 40 years on the statute books, Federal Law No. 15/1980 on Press and Publication (“Press and Publications Law”) was repealed and replaced with Federal Decree-Law No. 55/2023 On the Regulation of Media (“New Media Law”), issued by the Board of Directors of the Media Council. Given the seismic shift in how media content is produced, distributed and consumed since the early 1980s, the decision to revamp the central piece of UAE media legislation to expressly recognise modern technologies such as smartphones, video games, and video-on-demand platforms is both welcome and necessary. Until now, the Press and Publications Law had to be somewhat awkwardly applied to the modern media landscape which was understandably problematic.
The New Media Law came into force on 1 December 2023, with the Media Council holding a meeting on 18 December 2023 to highlight its issuance to the general public, as well as to set out its priorities for the next three years. Those priorities include “launching the media sector strategy, continuing the modernisation of the media legislative ecosystem to ensure a flexible media environment, developing a media intellectual property framework to protect creative products, attracting specialised media talent to the country, and fostering R&D to identify future media opportunities”.
As is common in the UAE, the New Media Law is subject to a set of implementing regulations (“IRs”), which are due to be issued by the end of March 2024, six months from the publication of the New Media Law. Much of the detail and context will be set out under those IRs. Notwithstanding the absence of the IRs, businesses operating the media sector will likely be interested in the following developments set out in the New Media Law:
- There is a suggestion that those entities based outside the UAE but providing content to users in the UAE will require a license (see definition of “Foreign Media Content” and Article 12(3), which provides “The Competent Authority shall, in coordination with the Council, issue Licenses for smart applications for the display of Foreign Media Content.”).
- The definition of “Works of Art” includes “Movies, series and other audio-visual materials, as well as electronic video games that are shown in cinemas or operated using any special electronic device, such as computer devices, as well as smart phones and televisions, through networks that rely on servers and that may be connected to the internet”. The IRs will determine the controls, requirements and procedures for the display of cinema movies as well as other Works of Art (Article 10).
- The definition of “Media Content” includes a reference to “human-made advertisement or promotional products”, perhaps implying that AI generated advertisements are not subject to the New Media Law.
- Electronic and Digital Media Activities (each defined under the New Media Law) are expressly subject to the standards of Media Content set out at Article 17 (which are broadly aligned with the media content standards set out under various existing UAE laws and regulations, including Cabinet Decision No. 23/2017 On Media Content).
- The Media Council will determine the standards for age classification of “the Media Content, concerning the publications and Works of Art that so require, particularly books, video games and cinema movies”. This is another welcome change as existing age classification requirements are unclear and lacking in detail.
- There are significantly higher penalties under the New Media Law (up to AED 2 million, as well as the potential for temporary or permanent business closure).
- The New Media Law states the importance of intellectual property rights and states that the Media Council will “promote the intellectual property protection in the State in order to protect the intellectual property rights related to the Media Industry” (Article 21).
While we await the detail to be set out in the IRs, the New Media Law arguably gives rise to as many questions as it does answers, but the introduction of references to methods of electronic content dissemination are a welcome indication of the UAE Media Council’s desire to modernise the existing regulatory framework.
Further, given that much of the guidance previously issued by the NMC the has not been publicly available for some time, with the status of such materials being unclear, a more pro-active UAE media regulator intent on taking the reins and issuing documents which provide the certainty sought by businesses and practitioners would certainly be a welcome step.