Sunshine and censorship: Press freedom in UAE

Uneven development by one of the Gulf’s most ambitious members has left a cultural vacuum and restrictions on press freedom…

Journalists’ rights to report uncensored have been pushed aside during the brutally efficient transformation of this tribal society and Emirati nationals are learning that cultural and societal transformation cannot be as easily manufactured as the fantastically equipped cites rising from the desert.
When your neighbours, such as Saudi Arabia, are noted oppressors of press freedom it’s understandable why the UAE is often overlooked on the radar of press freedom activists. It’s not widely documented that UAE journalists operate in a climate of direct and indirect censorship, highlighted by its rating of ‘Not Free’ by media watchdog Freedom House in its 2003 World Press Freedom survey where the UAE ranked 74th out of the 100 countries surveyed.

But any notion that the UAE is some journalism backwater appears way off the mark if you see the state-of-the-art facilities, such as Dubai Media City, available to journalists. Equal measures of capital investment and rhetoric about press freedom by the UAE government have not been followed by the freedom to report uncensored and journalists are learning that it’s easier to pour concrete than fundamentally change the cultural framework of their country.

“Who defines self-censorship?” asked Ibrahim Al-Abed, director of the government’s Department of External Information. “The phrase is often abused, given different connotations and I don’t like the words. The people working in the media use their own discretion to decide what goes.”

Despite such official exhortations in favour of openness and unbiased reporting, self censorship is rife within the UAE media and its proliferation is actively encouraged by a media-savvy government. The Department of External Information has a censorship department responsible for monitoring all media and internet content and there is a definite quasi-communist feel to the UAE power elite.


A governmental politburo of Sheikhs, handpicked from the country’s dominant tribes, is propped up by an endless trail of cabinet ministers and committees who maintain the current status-quo. A lack of government accountability is compounded by its vice-like grip on the media and an absence of democracy.

Dubai Media City (DMC) is often hailed by the government as a panacea for all press freedom woes in the Middle East but in truth it’s no more than an elaborate real estate project that has secured no further rights for journalists. The hype surrounding DMC’s launch in 2000 typifies the government’s rhetoric-heavy approach to press freedom in the UAE. The constitution guarantees freedom of expression but journalists power is diluted by government interference and archaic legislation.

“In the UAE we always come back to this great caveat: as long as it’s in accordance with the law,” said Hoda Barakat, a senior partner at Al Tamimi & Co, one of the few legal firms in the UAE that specialise in media law. “The law in the UAE, like many Gulf States, is still very primitive and in many ways it doesn’t always match what is happening in the media. When I meet with clients I am constantly using the phrase ‘strictly speaking’.”

The UAE government is fully aware of the threat that true freedom of expression poses to their regime but often adopts a softer approach to suppressing the media than some of its Arab neighbours. Ambiguous boundaries for reporting have been established but they amount to nothing better than putting journalists in a minefield and telling them they are free to go as they please.

Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the minister for information and culture, previously called on the media to make more of its supposed freedoms and stated that “media institutions that serve only to offer echoes of serving applause are of no value to government or to the people”. What Sheikh Abdullah failed to highlight was that the majority of the media is either owned or subsidised by the government and is rarely inclined to bite the hand that feeds it.

For example, consider the partisan tone used in a 2003 Gulf News article discussing urbanisation in the UAE. The opening line states, “The UAE is developing at a breathtaking pace, and residents know they are fortunate to be living in the country’s modern metropolises”.

Commercial censorship poses an equal, if not greater, threat to press freedom in the UAE because prominent Emirati families are often involved in many areas of both politics and business. Media organisations in the UAE are not characterised by clear political leanings towards what Westerners understand as left and right but are distinguished by how many risks owners are willing to take in terms of what they publish or broadcast. For example, Dubai-based Motivate Publishing insists all editorial content for its portfolio of magazines is sanctioned by the company’s senior management.

A lack of a credible ratings or circulations bureau is symptomatic of the UAE’s underdeveloped media and the lines between the media and marketing professions have been blurred by the country’s rapid pace of development. A 2002 ‘Cash for Editorial’ study by the International Public Relations Association claimed that 60 per cent of the Middle East PR community had altered the editorial judgement of a journalist through influence or direct payment.

Twenty-seven per cent of the respondents also reported that a journalist in full-time employment was also employed, either openly or secretly, by another company or PR agency.

The UAE’s English language media is dominated by Westerners but the fact that the majority of non-Arab journalists have been raised in parts of the world with a free press doesn’t necessarily mean they are balking at the UAE’s censorship.

Freelance journalist, and former editor of Time Out Dubai, Brian Scudder, claims that overseas journalists are doing little to aid the cultural development of the UAE.

He said: “A lot of the ex-pats that come to live here are not coming out of a love for the region. They’re coming to enjoy the sunshine and make a bit of money in a tax-free environment, there is an absolute lack of hunger to dig that little deeper and raise awareness of current issues.”

Scudder’s concerns are echoed by Barakat, who added: “You know, people have a very nice lifestyle here in the UAE and nobody really wants to rock the boat. I think in many cases people are not bothered by the reporting at all, it is more that reputation must be protected at all costs.”

The vast influence of expatriate journalists in the UAE has created a cultural imperialism of sorts with publications such as Time Out catering solely for European readers by offering a non-Arab diet of ‘birds, booze and bikinis’.

Scudder freely admits to making Time Out wholly British when he was editor. He added: “We were the first magazine to introduce booze by name in the region and the first to introduce bikini clad woman. We got away with doing things, but it meant that there was a definite dislike of Time Out by certain, quite influential, people in the Dubai emirate”.

With no trade unions or political parties, the UAE is missing the grassroots building blocks needed to champion discussion or simply to encourage people to ask questions of their leaders. However, a recent shift in the UAE media may have unwittingly created the type of inspirational vehicle needed to get Emirati asking more questions of their society.

The unprecedented reporting freedom granted to satellite television broadcasters Al Arabiya and Abu Dhabi TV is a much needed boost for the UAE media. Both stations are following in the footsteps of Qatar’s Al-Jazeera and their coverage has introduced a limited range of investigative, and crucially, censor-free journalism to the UAE for the first time. Perhaps more importantly they provide an objective and alternative viewpoint for Emirati in their native tongue.

It’s hoped this type of coverage will stimulate interest, from journalists and the presently ambivalent UAE public, to push for further press freedom. And until such freedom to report uncensored is extended from foreign to domestic matters they will remain little more than trophy TV stations for the UAE government to show off to its Arab neighbours.

Many observers now feel the only way to negate the ambivalent attitude towards the importance of press freedom is to ship out the foreigners and recruit more Emirati journalists, empowering them to exert more influence over their leaders. Dubai-based author and journalist Ben Smalley said: “If an ex-pat tries to criticise here they will be shipped out straight away, so they don’t rock the boat because their job depends on it and they have no back up. If there were more nationals involved in the media then they would have more right to criticise as it’s their country.”

Over the past decade there has been a concerted effort by the UAE government to preserve Emirati heritage and keep jobs for local people through its ‘Emiratisation’ programme. UAE nationals make up only 20 per cent of their total population yet, crucially, they remain almost entirely in control of their country’s resources. But most Emirati entering the office of a media organisation head for the boardroom rather than the news room due to the perception that the media often peddles ideas that are at odds with the Muslim way of life.

It has still to be established whether a desire for more media freedom exists amongst Emirati but the incumbent overseas journalists have thus far been unwilling, or indeed powerless, to highlight the flaws in the UAE’s censorship ridden media.

The key to flushing out censorship from the UAE media lies with the Emirati nationals themselves, as Scudder concludes: “I believe there is a genuine intent from the ruling family to develop the media. They have got the will and money to do it and, barring acts of gods, it will keep getting better.”