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(New York) - A ruling by the Abu Dhabi Federal Court of Appeal to suspend a local newspaper and fine its editor-in-chief further undermines press freedom in the United Arab Emirates, Human Rights Watch said today.

The court decision to uphold the conviction against Emarat Alyoum means that publication of the newspaper will be suspended for 20 days, and its editor, Sami al-Araimi, will be fined 20,000 dirhams (US$5,445), according to reports in another UAE newspaper on July 2, 2009. An October 2006 article published by Emarat Alyoum had alleged that a UAE-based company gave steroids to local race horses owned by the Abu Dhabi royal family. The government has on numerous occasions used the country's laws to penalize, fine, and close media establishments.

"Even if the article was not accurate, shutting down the newspaper for three weeks is totally disproportionate and a serious attack on press freedom," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "This can only further intimidate news organizations that investigate and criticize the government, and will deepen the already pervasive culture of self-censorship."

The conviction demonstrates why the UAE should revise its draft media law, Human Rights Watch said. The draft law, if passed in its current form, would include even more exorbitant civil penalties that could bankrupt media outlets and silence dissenting voices. It would also give the government power to suspend the licenses of newspapers, radio stations, and television channels for insignificant infractions.

International human rights law guarantees freedom of speech and of the press, placing particular importance on the right of the media to investigate and criticize public authorities and figures, and publish on other matters of public interest. Restrictions on the media should not be arbitrary and any sanctions must be proportional.

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