One of the wealthiest countries in the world is also one of the most impoverished and difficult for journalists. Despite appearances that all is well with the media in United Arab Emirates, there are numerous problems because of strict government control over what can be reported.
“Unlike some of the other countries in the region, there are few serious press freedom violations in the UAE,” according to a report by the International Press Institute. “Indeed, the country has much in common with other liberal countries in the region such as Qatar. However, press freedom in the Middle East is, in many ways, similar to a magician’s conjuring trick: What you see is not necessarily what is actually happening.”
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) explains that “the UAE constitution guarantees press freedom, but the content and political line of newspapers, especially Arab-language ones, is closely monitored. English-language media have more leeway. A 1988 law states topics that cannot be mentioned and journalists (must) censor themselves in matters of domestic policy, the life of the ruling families, religion or relations with neighboring countries. The foreign press is censored before it goes on sale.”
State of the media in the UAE
A well-known UAE journalist was quoted recently in the Khaleej Times as condemning the law.
“The working law is standing in the way of the freedom of the press, and, despite the amendment made to it, journalists were subject to trial in courts,” said Mohammed Al Qudsi.
According to an official government Web site, “It is UAE policy to encourage a free press, subject only to normal constraints underpinning the spiritual, moral and political integrity of the country and its people. As a result, the country’s mass media enjoys substantial freedom. This has been emphasized … to those working in the media, especially journalists, to discharge their duties without fear or favor, reminding them that journalism is about seeking the truth, while at the same time correcting mistakes, or helping to avoid them.”
An extensive study by OpenNet Initiative — an educational partnership among the University of Toronto, Harvard Law School and the University of Cambridge — points out that the UAE carefully monitors the media.
“The UAE constitution ‘allows the publication of any material, as long as publication does not breach the bounds of responsibility that goes with such freedom.’ ”
Foreign media operating in the new Dubai Media City are exempt, at least technically, from laws governing the local press. Most overseas journalists have, however, been asked by the government to sign a code of conduct saying they will be sensitive to cultural and religious beliefs in the UAE.
“Many journalists self-censor,” said the OpenNet report, “because they are foreign citizens and are able to remain in UAE only with a work permit, the issuance of which is controlled by the state.”
Stories making the news
* The UAE has become the most attractive Arab country for foreign capital as it accounted for nearly one-third of the total foreign direct investment (FDI) in 2005, according to official statistics. FDI inflow into the UAE hit a record $10 billion in 2005, nearly 34 percent of the total foreign capital flows of nearly $29.6 billion channeled into the Arab world. (Report from Emirates News Agency)
* Dubai’s property boom is two years away from its peak and is showing no signs of a slowdown, top developers and leaders have said. Despite fears of a correction, new legislation this year and limited supply mean that real estate prices are set to keep climbing, according to some of Dubai’s top players. (Report from Emirates Today)
The major issues
* Production of crude oil is allowing the UAE economy to grow at staggering levels. The Center for the Study of Global Change at Indiana University reported recently, “The nation’s wealth is based on the petroleum industry, which accounts for 33 percent of the federation’s GDP. … At current levels of production, the country’s oil reserves will last for the next century.”
* The UAE’s Gulf Corporation Council and the European Union are working on a free trade agreement. According to Gulf News, “EU officials said they were determined as well to reach a free trade agreement by the end of this year.” Negotiating teams plan to draft an accord later this summer.
Bruce C. Swaffield is a professor of graduate studies in journalism at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va. In addition to working as a professional journalist for many years in South Florida, Swaffield has been teaching journalism and writing since 1983. He is a member of the SPJ International Journalism Committee and may be contacted at email@example.com.