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Murdoch Urges More Freedom for Middle East Media

News Corporation chief calls on Arab countries to stop putting restrictions on their media

Chairman and chief executive of the News Corporation, Rupert Murdoch, is calling on Arab countries to stop putting restrictions on their media.

His comments were made at a high-profile summit currently taking place in the United Arab Emirates that aims to portray the country as a tolerant, cultural hub. But critics say government crackdowns on freedom of expression are increasing.

The Middle East has one of the fastest growing media markets in the world and officials in Abu Dhabi believe their city should be at the center of the region's budding industry.

The capital of the UAE has enough money to carry out its ambitious plans and it is strategically located, but Murdoch says if it really wants to succeed it must grant more freedom to the media.

"Markets that look to distort their media end up promoting the very panic and distrust that they had hoped to control," said Murdoch. "Certainly, each nation and culture has a right to insist that the people they allow into their countries to do business respect their national values and traditions. This is best administered, however, with a gentle touch."

The Emirates, like many Arab nations, imposes tight controls on its press, broadcasting outlets and even Internet Web sites. And, according to Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, the country is moving backwards on its press freedom index.

Last year, two local publications were threatened with suspension for published content and official spokesmen were assigned to government bodies to control the information that is provided to the media.

Draft legislation has also been approved by federal lawmakers that would significantly stiffen the penalties against journalists. Under the proposed rule, any reporter who criticizes the country's rulers, publishes misleading news that could harm the economy, or insults the traditions and values of the nation could be fined over $1 million. The draft still needs to be backed by the president before becoming law.

The head of the UAE Journalism Association Abdullah Rashid says the situation has become disheartening for local journalists.

"We can't do our jobs properly. Today, the UAE is making progress in many fields-economics, politics and many fields, but in journalism and media we're going backwards. We're not making any progress," said Rashid.

But director general of the UAE's National Media Council, Ibrahim al-Abed disagrees. He says that the laws and regulations in the Emirates are appropriate for the country.

"Some people like to be idealistic. We are not living in an idealistic world, we are living in this world where we have to protect our country, protect our economy, protect our traditions and culture and also we mean exactly to protect our press and protect our media from being a venue for rumors or for misleading information," said al-Abed.

Despite the current restrictions, Murdoch has shown increasing interest in the Middle East media market.

Earlier this week, a division of News Corporation, Fox International Channels, announced that it would set up some operations in the new state-run media complex in Abu Dhabi. The broadcaster also said it will move the Middle East operations for its online advertising business. FOX, among other operations, to the UAE capital.