Matt J. Duffy :: Thoughts on Journalism, Culture, and Global Communication

Thoughts On Journalism, Culture, and Global Communication
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About the author

Dr. Matt J. Duffy teaches journalism, media ethics and international communication law. His research focuses on journalism and media laws in the Middle East. Duffy's book "Media Laws of the United Arab Emirates" was published in 2014 by Wolters Kluwer. His academic work has been published in the Berkley Journal of Middle Eastern and Islamic Law, the Journal of Middle East Media, American Journalism, the Journal of Mass Media Ethics, and the Newspaper Research Journal. He received a Ph.D. in Public Communication from Georgia State University in the United States where he studied the use of unnamed sources in journalism. Since 2012, Duffy has served on the board of the Arab-United States Association for Communication Educators, an organization that aims to improve journalism in the Middle East. He currently serves as an assistant professor Kennesaw State University in Georgia, USA.

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I’ve been kicked out of the United Arab Emirates

posted on August 28, 2012 at 4:04 pm

Over the summer my wife and I both received notices that our contracts had been terminated and our residency visas would be canceled. Our employers told us that the order came from “outside the organization” and with no further explanation. Without a residency visa or a job, my family and I have been forced to leave the United Arab Emirates.

So, I appear to have discovered the limit for the tolerance of academic discourse in the UAE.

Matt J. Duffy, former assistant professor of communication at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi

During my two-year tenure, my colleagues and others constantly warned me that such a fate could await me. Still, I felt I had a duty as an academic and professor at Zayed University to speak and teach with minimal reservation about my area of expertise—journalism, international media law and communication ethics.

I wrote columns in Dubai’s Gulf News about press freedom and other issues. I taught international media law in my classes, including accurate appraisal of the UAE’s media regulation and how it differed from other approaches. I also helped organize events that allowed for public discussion and debate of Emirati issues. I blogged and tweeted about sensitive subjects—particularly how local press coverage differed from international counterparts. I launched a student chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, a prestigious U.S. journalism organization. And these students organized a celebration of the U.N.’s World Press Freedom Day in May. See the post below for a more exhaustive list of activities that may have led to my ouster.

I understood the risks in taking these actions and have no regrets.

But, I should stress that I didn’t move to the UAE hoping to garner attention and get booted out as a security threat. I observed the landscape, tried to decipher the “red lines” that I shouldn’t cross, and listened to the words of the country’s leaders who constantly stress the importance of education to the development of the nation. H.H. Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, told faculty at a recent convocation that he wanted the university to “engage with the community.” I followed the example of other local university professors who offered constructive observations from an academic perspective.

Tales of ex-pats who are mysteriously whisked away for various offenses are fairly plentiful in the United Arab Emirates. Some of them take on an apocryphal tone. I thought it might be helpful to document exactly how my departure was orchestrated.

H.H. Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, minister of higher education

The Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC) informed my wife, Dr. Ann Duffy, of the news of her immediate termination in mid-June. She was told that H.E. Dr. Mugheer Al Khaili was instructed to terminate Ann’s contract and revoke her visa. My wife had served as Division Manager for P-12 Policy, Planning and Performance Management with ADEC for more than a year and had received positive feedback on her performance. She holds a PhD in education policy and has 25 years of experience. She was also serving as chair of the school board for the American Community School, the school affiliated with the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi.

I learned about my fate six weeks later via a phone call from Zayed University’s provost, Larry Wilson. He also said that the order came from outside the university system and that Shiekh Nahyan had tried to appeal the directive. This appeal explains the delay in notification between my wife’s termination and my own. After hearing of my wife’s termination, we assumed my notice would be arriving soon and were surprised after a few days that we hadn’t heard anything from Zayed University.

No other information accompanied our termination orders, other than that they originated from outside of the respective organizations. It appears certain that these directives to fire my wife and I originated from the security forces, although we have no more information than presented here.

I should note that at around the same time the university was also told to terminate the contract of one of my faculty colleagues. He had served with distinction in the College of Communication and Media Sciences for 14 years. No explanation accompanied his dismissal either.

I am heartened to learn that the university did not choose to fire me and have great admiration for Sheikh Nahyan. He appears serious about creating a university that strives to compete at a global level and understands the freedom required for academics to practice their profession without interference. Last year, we held a forum at Zayed University about the impact of censored media on the Arab world. Sheikh Nayhan invited the attendees to his majlis and spoke favorably of the event and the need for academics to bring these issues up for discussion. His comments were carried on the state news agency, WAM. These terminations seriously undermine the efforts to bring world-class education to Emirati citizens.

The unknown member of the security forces who suggested kicking me out of the country

Unfortunately, Sheikh Nahyan wasn’t able to counterbalance the demands of the security forces. In fact, since the advent of the Arab Spring in early 2011, the security forces in the UAE appear to be winning every argument. The government recently booted out several organizations that promoted community engagement and security forces arrested dozens of Emiratis over the summer.

That’s too bad.

The UAE that I moved to 2010 appeared to be a progressive country in a region of the world that featured little progression. The country’s leaders talked about the desire to build a knowledge economy and educate its residents according to international standards. I was particularly impressed that Sheikh Nahyan ordered the communication department I joined to attempt to earn accreditation from a U.S.-based journalism education accrediting body, ACEJMC. This organization insists that institutions offer “instruction in and understand the range of systems of freedom of expression around the world, including the right to dissent, to monitor and criticize power, and to assemble and petition for redress of grievances.”

I suspect that having two professors fired by the security forces will put a damper on my former department’s chances for accreditation.

The actions of the UAE’s security forces stand in stark contrast to the country’s publicly professed intentions regarding the development and education of its workforce. Quite simply, it’s impossible to teach creativity and innovation in an environment where both teachers and students are scared to express themselves.

To be fair, the UAE is more progressive than many of its neighbors. The country allows people of most religions to worship freely here and is generally welcoming to outsiders. Still, we cannot brush over its steadfast opposition to allow for even moderate forms of free expression and ability to offer dissent.

I suspect few Emiratis will speak publicly decrying my ouster and some will certainly cheer it. The security forces have created an atmosphere in which Emiratis understand the consequences of openly questioning the government’s actions. The public sector accounts for roughly 90 percent of jobs for Emiratis, meaning that anyone who crosses a “red line” can easily find they—or even a member of their family—are no longer able to receive security clearance for their high-paying government position. The government also employs more direct methods–like indefinitely detaining its citizens–to quell opposition voices.

These actions leave the sphere of public discussion in the UAE severely limited.

At some point, the intellectual leaders of the UAE must debate whether throwing people like me out of the country is making it stronger or slowing down progress. It can’t be both.


Click here to read my top 18 guesses at why I got booted from the UAE.

Click here to read a personal note.

And click here to see some supporting documents including my last job evaluation.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post referred incorrectly to Provost Larry Wilson’s job title.

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  • peter habeeb on 7 August 2014

    You are an American in UAE and this is why you made more money with good housing and other special request than many Arabs or Asians who are more qualified than you. Even other Americans in your country refuse to give you this advantage. There is censorship problem in USA and unfair press also. In the Gulf, white employees can do anything and make much money. You know this also.

  • dennis on 5 January 2015

    Arab and US conflict. UAE invited you with a notion that you have studied Arab culture before you came to emirati. They have Arab identity to protect and uphold. You are not a good corporate employee. Americans who thrive well in the middle east dont speak their minds like you what you did.

  • Mirror image on 6 January 2015

    Matt, I am surprised that you refer to UAE as not allowing freedom of speech. What freedom of speech is there in your country, Britain, the rest of Europe, down under in Australia and New Zealand? America talks about Liberty-Matt, Liberty for WHO? In Australia someone was taken to court for exposing corruption of a government minister. That, Matt, exposing corruption by government ministers, is ONLY reserved for Developing countries and the Middle East. In NZ, every single PERSON in the country has been placed under surveillance -YES, a surveillance STATE-yes, the 100% “pure” NZ. So, when you refer to “free speech”, what are you referring to?

    1. Propaganda by the western media supported by Western and European governments OR
    2. Propaganda by Western and European governments SUPPORTED by media?

    Come on, Matt, let’s be truthful here; PEOPLE deserve to KNOW the truth:
    In the same way as there was NO LIBERTY for the owners of the RESOURCES in America while Europeans experienced Liberty in America, so there is NO freedom of speech -NOT in America, Britain, rest of Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Neither is there freedom of speech for “DEVELOPING NATIONS” PEOPLE who are RICH but held in a GRIP OF POVERTY by “DEVELOPED NATIONS”, of which America is ONE.

    The world, Matt, deserves to know THE TRUTH, THE WHOLE TRUTH, THE REAL TRUTH. THE WORLD WANTS AND DESERVES to have REAL FREEDOM OF SPEECH, not a play on semantics and big brother tactics that allows America, Britain and the rest of Europe, Australia and New Zealand to REDEFINE free speech at will, but jumps UP AND DOWN if any other country, for example UAE, in a small way, follows the west.

  • Dubaian for 16 years on 15 May 2015

    As someone who has grown up in Dubai I find your perspective and responder’s perspectives rather amusing but also sad. (Not to be confused with your point – which I highly respect).

    You believed that by authorities saying that they wanted higher level standards that they actually wanted things to change. A mistake that is easily understood. This is a business culture; run by Royals and Muslims who need public perspective to be ‘positive’. (In some instances it actually has allowed the country to run smoother and to prosper. For instance the crime rate for murder is quite low in comparison with most of the world – that we know of).

    The people commenting back however are even more blind. Media can not fully exist without promotion and propaganda – sure – but that’s coming from sources. Its an individual’s job to report a balanced and truthful account to the best of their ability. (Which is just one reason why proper journalism training is so important!)

    The problem ins’t that people are scared.
    The problem is that they see no problem

    …. and I wonder why that is…?

    And on that note: I very much commend your efforts. I would have loved to have taken your classes. For the main problem is: How can students who have been trained in the UAE ever work elsewhere without a balanced education?

  • Ss on 13 June 2015

    What an utter joke! You lost your job and you’re crying?! I would like to blogs about how the USA handels people on freedom of speech. You’re countrymen have pillaged raped and destroyed muslim countries worldwide, while muslim countries welcome you. You repay them by spouting venom?! Then you want people to feel sorry for you?! To the stupid idiot talking about rape of the girl and the fillipino woman. Grow up! How many rapes go on in western countries. The western world is covered with abused women and children and littered with illegitimate children. You need to learn to respect the laws of other countries. While saying that, there are problems with gulf countries but there are problems everywhere. Every county will have rules and regulations, break them, and you’ll be dealt with accordingly!

  • Ss on 13 June 2015

    @Dubai an for 16 years. You are an utter moron. Try this sane propaganda or speaking up against any western government and see how you’re treated. Before you know it, you’ll be in an orange suit on your way to the middle of no where.

  • Muhammed Flaifil on 21 August 2015

    Look it’s simple. The UAE is not a democracy . Simple as that. The Emirati people are like babies. You upset them and they start crying and making trouble for you.
    The Emirati here are all spoilt due to the government bailing them out for every trouble they get into. Emirati has loans he can’t pay, no problem- The government will pay it off. Emirati gets free home – gift from government – no need to take a house loan, it’s all paid by the government. As soon as Emirati graduates from University, he becomes CEO of some company! You can’t report an Emirati for illegal behavior, but as soon as he reports you, the army navy and special forces are at your door. The list goes on and on. To summarize things, UAE has serious issues.

  • Angelina Williams on 23 August 2015

    Mr. Muhammaed Flafil,
    Go suck a dick or something.

    Warm Regards,
    Mariam Hummus

    P.s. its falafel not flafil, learn how to spell you ignorant little fuck.

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