My departure over the summer has generated a little press coverage over the past few days. One of my favorite reports came from an interview with Naomi Hunt of the International Press Institute in Vienna. It also features an interview with American University of Beirut media professor Jad Melki and an unnamed Dubai journalist, both of whom add some interesting perspective.
One nice attribute of the story is that Hunt included a transcription of my interview. She asked me about the current level of free expression in the UAE, a topic that’s not openly discussed much. Thought I highlight how I responded:
IPI: You were in Abu Dhabi throughout the Arab uprisings. From what you saw, did that change the media climate in U.A.E., or its policies toward the media?
Duffy: Well, that’s a good question. First off, the media in the U.A.E. covered the Arab Spring pretty well – it wasn’t like they were pretending that it wasn’t happening all around them. Although I will tell you one of my studies was that I compared Arabic language coverage to English language coverage in the Abu Dhabi newspapers, and it was notably different. The Arabic coverage was less focused on what was happening in the Arab Spring than the English coverage.
I think what it changed the most was that it brought social media to the forefront – Twitter really exploded the two years I was there – and everybody really saw the power of social media, including the security forces of the U.A.E. So I really think if I was to say, here’s what’s happening, the security forces at the U.A.E. are very concerned about security and they are very concerned about stability, and they see this instability in the region, and every action they are taking is to increase the stability of the U.A.E., which certainly is their job as members of the security forces.
So what was the impact of the Arab Spring? If anything, it caused the government to respond in a very repressive, restrictive way regarding what kind of speech is allowed in the U.A.E. and right now its just such a different environment even than two years ago when I got here – people are far less willing to speak out about what they think, particularly about anything the government is doing related to security. In fact the effect was that it made the government far more repressive and restrictive related to freedom of expression.
IPI: Are social media websites popular in U.A.E., and is their use changed where the “red lines” lie?
Duffy: I think they tried, and then they started arresting people for their speech on Twitter – and people are arrested and are charged with insulting the ruler, or calling for a change in government, or calling for overthrowing the government, these kind of charges, and they’re being brought against people who are tweeting. Certainly the government is making it very clear that just because its social media and not a newspaper doesn’t mean that you can say anything you want to. Last year five people were jailed for seven or eight months for postings on an online forum. That sort of happened before Twitter, and then Twitter came around and, basically, a lot more people were using Twitter, and over the summer more than 50 Emiratis have been arrested in the U.A.E, mostly for things they’ve said on Twitter.
And of course very little of that has been reported in the local media – how long they’re going to be in jail, when the court dates are, or what they’re being charged with – very little transparency in the press because they know this is not something we’re supposed to pay attention to.
Here’s what I said about how the media approaches those security-related topics:
… But most people would agree there is self-censorship and that there are certain topics that aren’t covered. I would say first and foremost would be anything security related, so any move made by security forces just automatically is not going to be reported on until it comes from some type of official source.
There’s an official news agency called WAM that’s actually part and parcel of the National Media Council, which is the government body that oversees regulation of the media so really, if it’s a sensitive subject, particularly something to do with security or something to do with the royal family, perhaps, then the journalist would just know that we’re not going to do anything about that unless WAM, the state news agency, releases some type of a statement about the issue. And then if they do that maybe they’ll cover it, often times they’ll just run their statement verbatim, very rarely will do they do any kind of exploratory reporting related to any issues like that.
So, yes, the news media in the UAE do an admirable job in many ways. However, the elephant in the room is how they cover issues revolving around security and other ‘sensitive’ topics. Guess we all know the answer.