There have been a number of things written about the UAE’s new reading law, which was officially unveiled shortly before this year’s Sharjah International Book Fair — although the text of the law has still not been publicly released. The 18-point law comes as part of a 10-year national reading strategy that’s backed by a 100-million dirham fund:
The full law won’t be released until it’s published in the next “Offficial Journal,” but Alanood Bin Kalli, direct of special projects development at the Public Diplomacy Office, clarified a few of the points.
Reading-law benefits: Not just for citizens
One of these is that “Reading Bags” will be given out to babies born in the UAE. The law said they would go to “all” babies, but did that mean all citizens or anyone born in the Emirates? What language or languages will the books be in?
Alanood clarified that the “Reading Bags” are for “all babies born in the UAE and will be provided in Arabic and English. The Arabic bag for the UAE as well as the Arab Expat.” There will not be bags in Urdu or Tagalog, however: “Other nationalities will get the English version.”
He said the Ministry of Health is negotiating with possible suppliers for the bags, but “There were standards specified for the books and the bags. The aim is to have the books UAE produced, taking into consideration that they should be the richest and most engaging early years reading experiences for children, intended to encourage their parents to dedicate time to reading with their children.”
The statement that “reading is the right of all members of society,” Alanood said, also is meant to apply to everyone, “UAE nationals and residents alike.”
Also, one of the topics that caught the attention of media was the part of the law that suggested government employees will get time during the workday to read. However, this doesn’t really mean employees will get an hour a day to sit down with their favorite thriller. Alanood: “Government employees will be encouraged to read for their professional and personal development within the context of their role and work and their managers are tasked with ensuring they not only have the time for reading but are encouraged to read and given the resources they need to invest in their development through reading.”
This does mean government employees at every level, Alanood said, including cleaning staff, “And Ministers.”
The International Publishers Association was most enthusiastic about the part of the law that excepts books and publishing from taxes. “That includes the cost of ISBNs through to exemption from sales taxes,” Alanood said.
What about censorship?
Does the new reading law change censorship at all? Alanood:
There is no censorship regulation mandated by law in place in the UAE as such, although there have been guidelines applied in terms of sensitive or culturally offensive material by the regulators responsible for this sector, namely the National Media Council. However, while it is clear that no single body should be tasked with applying ‘censorship’ of reading material in a progressive and enlightened society, there is also a need to ensure that issues such as hate speech and socially unacceptable material are managed. Increasingly, these are addressed by other organisations such as the Ministry for Tolerance and by other legislation. This effectively removes the whole grey area of ‘censorship’ and creates an environment where two needs are reconciled: society is served by a talented and creative pool of writers and creative minds creating compelling content, while at the same time protecting itself from extremism and offensive materials.
Books in libraries, cafes, prisons, and beyond
Another part of the law that caught global attention was that reading material must now be available in places like “cafes and malls.”
What this means is still being worked out, Alanood said. “There will be guideline from the Ministry of Economy for each coffee shop based on its size, including the number of books to provide and the diversity of materials in both Arabic and English to meet different interests.”
Another part of the law, as announced, was that libraries will be open seven days a week. This applies not just to larger communities, but to smaller ones as well. “If there is a community large enough to be served by a library,” Alanood said, “then that library should be open through the week.”
The new law also states that it will support volunteers in reading to the elderly and ill. Alanood clarified that the Ministry of Community Development is responsible for supporting these volunteers, and will provide an “opportunity for individuals and entities to register in a database to volunteer for reading-related schemes specifying the time, Emirate dates and target group they are interested in working with.”
The law also correctional facilities and hospitals, where Alanood said there will be “appropriately resourced and managed reading facilities,” and even a program to “incentivise reading among prisoners by reducing their sentence by a certain days for each book read and discussed successfully.”
Incentives for publishers and others
The law also promises incentives for authors, editors, and publishing houses. These are yet to be determined, Alanood said, “but the Law makes the intent clear – that the mandate of those entities which include aspects of writing, editing and publishing in their remit should focus on encouragement rather than proscription and incentivisation over regulation.”
But there will be grant funds available, through the law, for individuals who have ideas for reading projects:
Yes there is a grant fund to sponsor and provide financial support for activities and programs that encourage reading specifically by individual and non-profit organizations. Our aim is to build towards the long term with a set of guiding principles which help our government and people to weave the sharing of reading, knowledge and imagination into the fabric of our families and communities.