Here’s a video of CNN correspondent Erin Burnett’s recent interview with HH Sheikh Mohommed bin Rashid, the ruler of the emirate of Dubai and the vice president of the United Arab Emirates. She asked him specifically about freedom of speech and the press in the UAE. Here’s an excerpt:
Burnett asked about the case of the “UAE5,” in which five Emirati activists were arrested after one of them said the government “was buying off the people so that they don’t demand change like in Egypt, like in Egypt. So, what’s your view of what happened and whether it’s OK to say something like that here.”
HH Bin Rashid: If you are a criminal then you go to court. You know, not everybody is perfect. And we are not perfect. We’re doing a lot for our people. There’s still more to do. So, we hope these five will become better citizens for their own good and their people.
Burnett: It just leads to the question of one thing over the years covering the UAE. People will say the press isn’t totally free. People can’t really say everything that they really think. Do you think that’s part of how, in this society, you need to govern.
HH Bin Rashid: As long as they don’t say something wrong about a person or whatever it is, they can say whatever they want. As I told you, we are not perfect. We are still learning. We are trying to do our job right and we’re trying to help our own people… We have our own democracy. You cannot transport your democracy to us — we are different. For example, our democracy comes from the Koran. As long as journalists don’t step on somebody else, then you are free do what you like.
Of course, some of the questions asked by an internationally based CNN correspondent would never be broached by a local journalist — a sign of the self-censorship prevalent in the UAE. And don’t expect any of the sheikh’s candid comments about the governing of the UAE to appear in the local press either.
UPDATE: The local press surprisingly covered the CNN interview with great attention. Abu Dhabi’s The National newspaper provided the most robust coverage, even quoting the sheikh’s comments about press freedom. Gulf News also covered the interview and noted the press freedom issues — but they failed to mention that his comments referred to journalists specifically. Both articles appeared on the front page. Most of the Arabic language papers covered the interview as well–some more than others.
UPDATE II: I used the sheik’s comments to launch an editorial in Gulf News about the lack of legal protections for journalists in the UAE.