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News, analysis and commentary by UBC Journalism students

A free press. Technically.

I’m a bit late jumping on this but I recently read an article in the UAE-based newspaper, Gulf News, on…

By Heba Elasaad , in Arab press making the news Blogs , on January 29, 2008

I’m a bit late jumping on this but I recently read an article in the UAE-based newspaper, Gulf News, on recent developments in the state’s press laws.

Just to put it into context, the Emirates has for some time now been seen as the region’s media hub – to recycle an overprinted term.

It’s listed the second highest Gulf country – behind Kuwait – on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index last year, saw the 2004 establishment of a Journalist’s Association, the development of the country’s code of media ethics, and has its widely-discussed Media City, housing the offices of agencies, publications and broadcasters like Reuters, AP, MBC and BBC.

Vice President Sheikh Mohammed’s recent order to ban the jailing of journalists can’t be overlooked in a region where this is very much a first (Kuwait’s attempt still criminalizes offences like blasphemy), and the fact that transparency is the word-of-the-day alongside news of the press law amendments is nothing but promising.

Still, as someone who has the majority of her work experience based in government-run stations and Gulf-glossies, I can’t help but remain critical of where local press finds itself today.

The article I mentioned above made an interesting point:

“The biggest challenge to the freedom of press in the UAE comes through self-censorship.” *

Openness and transparency seem to be more welcomed in the realm of international news. I’m not saying the UAE law in any way makes a distinction between news locally and abroad, but self-censorship and political ‘caution,’ for lack of a better word, still strongly affects the broadcasting and publication of stories based on the local government, society and the like.

When I was working in Dubai last year, there was a point in time when I was told, straight-faced, by one of my supervisors: Don’t look for the story.

There’s protocol. There are rules. Ethical guidelines? Don’t make important people mad.

While that was a case of someone being surprisingly candid about the role of a local reporter as he saw it, it almost always seemed to make itself known as the essentially unspoken rule.

Najla Al Awadhi, Dubai Media Incorporated‘s Deputy CEO and General Manager for Dubai One TV wrote in an article back in August:

“Why would I want my government to be less involved, when I know that my government and its progressive policies have fostered prosperity and growth for the UAE?” 

She goes on to explain the fact that she is by no means suggesting restricting freedom of opinion, but that, “If something is going to harm the social harmony that we have created, then that piece of information cannot be justified as freedom being practised with responsibility towards the greater good.”

Now the UAE is in the process of setting up its own media ‘watchdog,’ “to monitor and enforce a media code of conduct.”

I’m not exactly sure where all this will leave the now apparently free local reporter.

*This is the article’s paraphrase of a point made by Fazal Malek, a journalism faculty member of Dubai Men’s College of the Higher Colleges of Technology.