Courts may ease limits on publishing names

Some defendants who appear in court may find their names published in full in the media under new guidelines.

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DUBAI // Some people who appear in court may find their names are published in full in the media, following the release of broad guidelines by the emirate's Public Prosecution Department. In the latest issue of Dubai Legal, the department's in-house, Arabic-language law magazine, the Public Prosecution Department says publishing names may be permissible in some circumstances, provided the report is factual and objective and there is an absence of malice.

The Attorney General has identified suspects in criminal cases when he has deemed it to be in the public interest to do so, but usually refers to defendants only by their initials. Last month, Abid al Boom, the owner of Abid al Boom Management and Development Properties, was named by the authorities and the media after he was arrested for allegedly running a bogus investment portfolio. "When we named Abid al Boom as a suspect in an ongoing criminal investigation, Dubai Attorney General Essam Eisa Humaidan pointed to the need to alert the general public and depositors in al Boom's investment portfolio so they can approach us to report how much money they invested with him," said a spokesman for the department.

Three other recent cases have seen defendants identified by media outlets. In June, the Pakistan cricketer Mohammad Asif, 25, was widely named in reports of his arrest at Dubai airport on suspicion of possessing drugs. After three weeks in detention he was released without charge and deported. Two Britons arrested on July 5 after allegedly having intercourse on Jumeirah public beach were also identified by the local and international media. Michelle Palmer, 36, and Vincent Acors, 34, pleaded not guilty to charges at the Dubai Misdemeanours Court yesterday.

Also last month, a senior government minister was arrested and charged with breach of trust and fraud in a private matter. He was named by at least one international and one local news outlet, although most of the UAE media followed the official lead. "In the case of the unnamed Minister of State charged with betrayal of trust we did not mention his name because the case predates his appointment to the cabinet and the case is a dispute between two parties and not a case of betrayal of the public trust," said the department's spokesman.

Lawyers complain that naming defendants in the media while their case is under adjudication tarnishes their reputation, irrespective of the outcome of the hearing. "A mental picture of a defendant whose name appears in print sticks in the minds of the general public, neighbours, family and friends," said Saeed al Ghailani, a lawyer. "The prosecution or court may dismiss the case or find a person not guilty and tell him he is free to go, but what will such a person face now his name is on the pages of newspapers and on everyone's tongue?"

In one such case, he said, a defendant was found not guilty but after his name had appeared in print his wife asked for a divorce. The new guidelines follow the decree in September from Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, that journalists should no longer face prison for things they have written. His intervention followed the case of two journalists who were jailed for defamation.

Before 2004, such cases invariably went to trial but, since the UAE Journalists Association set up a legal defence team to represent reporters in court, the situation has improved. In 2004, just two cases against journalists were dismissed. In 2005, 10 were rejected, rising to 20 in 2006. In the past year, the Public Prosecution Department in Dubai has dismissed 40 complaints made against members of the press.

Speaking to Dubai Legal, Mahmoud Fahmi Tamam Sultan, a Dubai Appeal Court judge, said the press played a vital role when it came to matters of public interest. It was, however, a role that carried responsibilities. "A journalist has the right to publish news reports or to comment on news events but is bound by the limits imposed on that right by law, that is, what is published should not cause harm to others or tarnish the reputation of persons working in the public sphere," he said.

Mohammed Yousef, a lawyer and the head of the Journalists Association, said that "naming parties to ongoing court cases or against whom complaints are filed absolutely contradicts the code of ethics which editors of all major local newspapers signed up to". While the code was not enforceable by law, he would like to see a committee set up by the association to censure organisations that stepped out of line.

In the case of the Minister of State, he said that those organisations that had named him had breached the code. "If we name the minister then we should also name the plaintiff in the case and her deceased husband, the minister's local partner, in the story as well," he said. In his view, "names of defendants must only be reported when a final ruling is issued in a case". @Email:hbathish@thenational.ae