Today, Al Jazeera announced its plan to buy Current TV in the United States in a bid to increase the reach of its English news channel. The deal will allow the Qatar-funded network to create an Al Jazeera America service that can reach up to 60 million viewers which have remained stubbornly out of reach.
In the United States, Al Jazeera is still heavily associated with Osama bin Laden and terrorist organizations because of actions in the late 90s. (Statements from the terrorist leader were always released exclusively to the channel.) The association has made it difficult for the channel to find space on the American cable TV lineups. Purchasing Current TV might not fix the problem — Time Warner Cable (and its 10 million subscribers) has already announced plans to drop Current TV, and consequently, Al Jazeera America. Time Warner Cable is wrong to take this action.
As I stated in 2010, Al Jazeera English is a quality news outlet that offers some rather good journalism. And they certainly provide a more global perspective for US audiences than can be found on the MSNBC, CNN and Fox News channels. Many critics have noted that the Arabic version of the channel is increasingly aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood. Obviously, that’s troubling — but my understanding is there’s virtually no interaction between the English and Arabic news teams. Al Jazeera English doesn’t appear to under any type of coercion in its coverage.
Perhaps a tangential angle to the Al Jazeera story is the near-complete lack of independent reporting that emanates locally in Qatar and the other Gulf states. This issue was examined at length by CNBC journalist Yousef Gamal El-Din in the following report which includes a few quotes from me:
Great to see Al Jazeera move further into the US market. I’d just love to see Qatar, the UAE and other Gulf countries improve the environment for critical journalism at home as well.
UPDATE: After a conversation on Twitter, I changed the wording regarding Time Warner Cable’s move from “That’s a shame” to a more forceful: “Time Warner Cable is wrong to take this action.”
Here’s a favorite quote from the English philosopher who invented Utilitarianism along with Jeremy Bentham:
The entire history of social improvement has been a series of transitions, by which one custom or institution after another, from being a supposed primary necessity of social existence, has passed into the rank of an universally stigmatized injustice and tyranny. So it has been with the distinctions of slaves and freemen, nobles and serfs, patricians and plebeians; and so it will be, and in part already is, with the aristocracies of colour, race, and sex.
When we read this section in my ethics classes I like to ask my students what tradition or custom in today’s society will one day be stigmatized as injustice. Always a good discussion.
George Zimmerman, the man at the center of the Trayvon Martin murder case, has just filed a defamation suit against NBC News for “alleging that the company’s editing of his voice on a 911 tape constituted defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress,” according to the NY Times.
NBC was criticized earlier this year for how it reported on Zimmerman’s 911 call:
The edits of a 911 audio recording — which removed an intervening question from the operator directly asking Mr. Zimmerman what race Mr. Martin was — occurred three times on NBC’s “Today” show, first on March 20 in a story by Lilia Luciano; on March 22 in another story by Ms. Luciano; and again on March 27 in a story by Ron Allen.
In Ms. Luciano’s first report, Mr. Zimmerman’s words to the 911 operator were: “This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something. He looks black.” In fact, Zimmerman told the operator: “This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.” When the dispatcher said, “O.K., and this guy — is he white, black or Hispanic?” Zimmerman then said, “He looks black.”
At first glance, Zimmerman probably has a reasonable shot at winning this lawsuit. But, it will likely hinge on what the journalists who made the report say under oath during the discovery process.
In order to win a libel case in the US, the plaintiff must probe three things:
- That the information presented was false
- That it was disseminated
- That it caused injury.
The last two are pretty easy to prove. The “falseness” of the report is debatable, but a jury could conceivably agree that the way the 911 call was edited made it look like Zimmerman was villainous, and therefore “untrue.”
Assuming he clears those hurdles, Zimmerman’s lawyers would then have to prove that NBC news was either negligent (if he’s deemed a private figure) or acting with “actual malice” (if he’s deemed a public figure.)
In this case, Zimmerman could argue that he was a private figure at the time because he hadn’t attempted to gain attention from the press.
Therefore, he must only prove that the press didn’t behave according to normal newsroom standards (negligence) instead of proving that they knowingly disregarded the truth (“actual malice.”)
Given these facts, Zimmerman could win this suit if the journalists at NBC testify under oath that they deviated from normal newsroom practices in putting together the story. For instance, if one or several journalists had suggested that the editing wasn’t ethical and this input was ignored, then that could be grounds for negligence (or even actual malice.) Or if only one journalist listened to the 911 tapes and handled the editing on his or her own without any supervision, then that also could be considered negligent.
In the end, NBC News may simply settle the matter out of court, a move they made with the falsely accused Olympic bomber Richard Jewel. They wouldn’t settle because they decided they couldn’t win, but because it’s not worth the money to pay lawyers to fight the case.
Either way, it would be a mistake to view Zimmerman’s defamation lawsuit as a ridiculous longshot.
OK, regulation is probably the wrong word, but the Leveson report released today does suggest some legislative mechanisms to set up a self-regulating board for the press in the United Kingdom. However, if I’m reading the report correctly, the “regulation” appears to be very light. Here’s how Leveson explained it to the Telegraph:
“The legislation would not give any rights to Parliament, to the Government or to any regulatory or other body to prevent newspapers from publishing any material whatsoever,” he says.
“Despite what will be said about these recommendations by those who oppose them, this is not, and cannot be characterised as, statutory regulation of the press.
“What is proposed here is independent regulation of the press organised by the press, with a statutory verification process to ensure that the required levels of independence and effectiveness are met.”
The new body, he says, should have an arbitration system to enable wronged parties to seek swift redress by way of a prominent apology and fines, if appropriate.
That sounds quite reasonable to me, although perhaps I’d react differently if he were suggesting such an approach to the US press. But, the US press — quite objectively — is ethically leaps and bounds above much of the British press. And this approach seems to only create a quick-recourse mechanism for people who’ve been libeled or had their privacy invaded. It’s important to remember that British legislation already allows for damages for privacy and defamation cases — so, it’s not as though they’re creating new oversight from a complete vacuum.
I find myself thinking that the status quo isn’t working in the UK, so why not try something new? Many journalists appear to have operated for more than a decade without much thought for the rule of law. And ethical lapses probably go back further than that. Besides, lawmakers can always go back and undo the system if unintended consequences develop.
But, with huge interests entrenched against the suggestions, I doubt the Leveson recommendations will evolve into anything approaching reality.
Here are the slides from my presentation at the recent Arab-US Association for Communication Educators conference in Atlanta. They detail my research for the Doha Centre for Media Freedom into the media laws of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The broad conclusion is that the media laws in these countries don’t provide a suitable foundation for a robust, independent press. Take a look at the slides for more specifics. The Doha Centre will be releasing the report in English and Arabic in the near future.
The state news agency reported a major change to the Cybercrime Law of 2006 that details which online acts are illegal.
The revision, published in full in Gulf News, criminalizes anyone who uses a electronic means to “deride or to damage the reputation or the stature of the state or any of its institutions, its President, the Vice President, any of the Rulers of the emirates, their Crown Princes, the Deputy Rulers, the national flag, the national anthem, the emblem of the state or any of its symbols.”
The decree also offers penalties “of imprisonment on any person publishing any information, news, caricatures or any other kind of pictures that would pose threats to the security of the state and to its highest interests or violate its public order.”
These restrictions, of course, are incredibly broad and will surely lead to even more self-censorship in the United Arab Emirates. Any legitimate criticism of the government could conceivably violate “public order.” Better to just stay quiet while on Twitter, Facebook or YouTube lest one step across this nebulous line set up by the new law.
Other countries do pass laws to ensure public order — however, the ones with strong protections for free expression strive to ensure that the laws don’t prohibit legitimate criticism and discussion. In the U.S., for instance, the line is generally drawn at speech which incites “imminent lawless action.” This new provisions of the cybercrime law are far more restrictive and nebulous.
UPDATE (Nov. 13): Abu Dhabi’s The National newspaper editorial writers managed to squeeze in a good paragraph about the revision: “But specifics on what types of speech or actions would be considered damaging are not spelled out. Clarity here would be welcome.”
UPDATE: Alexander McNabb has a good post on the revision.
CORRECTION (Nov. 14): An earlier version of this post criticized the WAM news agency for not including an English version of the full decree. The news agency did post a full version which they oddly split into three parts. Looking at the first part alone made it look as though much of the decree had been left untranslated.
Jordan’s Minister of Interior just announced that a “free and objective media is a key building block” for the nation’s development. These words would be quite heartening if King Abdullah hadn’t recently approved several restrictions to the country’s already stifling media law.
The amendments to the country’s 1998 Press and Publications Law require more than 200 news websites to register with the government–a move that allows for censorship and other regulation of its content. The nation’s newspapers already suffer from self-censorship, avoiding sensitive topics and objective reporting out of fear of government reprisals. As one Jordanian journalist put it, “As long as you don’t write about the king, the military, religion or sex you can cover anything you want.”
The recent move to put the country’s online news outlets under the control of government regulators was widely criticized, both inside and outside the country. One of the reasons online news outlets are so popular, of course, is that they exist largely outside of the purview of government oversight. Subjecting them to registration appears aimed squarely at their independence.
Given this recent history, comments about the importance of press freedom from Awad Khleifat, the Minister of the Interior, appear quite contradictory. Of course, he was speaking to a group of foreigners from the International Press Institute (IPI) which was announcing that Amman would be hosting its World Congress in May 2013. Arab governments often say one thing publicly to foreign audiences while upholding policies at home that flatly contradict those statements. See, for instance, HH Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid’s public praise of the freedom enjoyed by the United Arab Emirates’ local press, while the nation does nothing to ease its onerously restrictive press laws.
According to the state news agency, Jordan’s Khleifat pledged the government’s support of a responsible media “that seeks to convey the truth and detect flaws to correct them.” Perhaps we shouldn’t miss the nuance in this language. Government media regulators regularly talk about the importance of “responsibility” or “conveying truth” — but often these words are the tools that lead to overt censorship as well as quiet self-censorship. If the government gets to determine what is true or responsible, then the press has little power to operate with any independence.
Any Arab country serious about supporting a free and independent press must first revise its outdated (often colonial) media laws and give journalists the freedom to report the news without fear of fines, deportation or prison. Until the legal environment changes, government pronouncements are little more than hot air.
Here’s a section from the resolution adopted today. The European Parliament:
… Expresses great concern about assaults, repression and intimidation against human rights defenders, political activists and civil society actors within the United Arab Emirates who peacefully exercise their basic rights to freedom of expression, opinion, and assembly; calls on the authorities of the United Arab Emirates to halt the ongoing crackdowns immediately;
Calls for the unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience and activists including human rights defenders and calls on the authorities of the United Arab Emirates to ensure that detainees deemed to have broken the law be brought before a judge, be charged with a crime and be provided with the legal assistance of their choosing;
Calls on the authorities of the United Arab Emirates to conduct thorough and impartial investigations into the assault and public threats made against Ahmed Mansoor and all the other cases of harassment and assault;
Calls for the respect of all human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression, both online and offline, freedom of assembly, women’s rights and gender equality, the fight against discrimination, and the right to a fair trial…
The resolution documents the main problems with the detentions that started earlier this year.
Whereas the government of the United Arab Emirates has accelerated its crackdown on human rights defenders and civil society activists in 2012, bringing the number of political detainees to 64;
Whereas most of them are in incommunicado detention, there are allegations of torture, and they are being denied legal assistance;
Whereas the detainees include the vice-president of the Student Association of the United Arab Emirates, Mansoor al-Ahmadi, one sitting judge, Mohamed al-Abdouly, two former judges, Khamis al-Zyoudiand and Ahmed al-Za’abi, and two prominent human rights lawyers, Mohamed al-Mansoori – a former president of the Jurists’ Association – and Mohamed al-Roken;
Whereas employees of the Emirian lawyer who is offering the detainees legal assistance have allegedly been subjected to a systematic campaign of harassment and intimidation, including the deportation of three non-Emirian employees on grounds of national security; whereas lawyers who have travelled to the United Arab Emirates to offer legal assistance to the detainees have also been harassed;
Whereas human rights defenders and democracy activists have been subjected to harassment, travel bans, restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, arbitrary detention, revocation of nationality, deportation, and illegal imprisonment;
Whereas the authorities of the United Arab Emirates have insisted that their crackdown is a response to a foreign-inspired Islamist plot that aims to overthrow the government; whereas the detainees all have ties to al-Islah, a peaceful Islamist group that has operated in the United Arab Emirates since 1974; whereas the evidence indicates that national security is the pretext for a crackdown on peaceful activism designed to stifle calls for constitutional reform and reform on human rights issues such as statelessness;
Whereas a prominent human rights defender and blogger, Ahmed Mansoor, was attacked twice in recent weeks and has suffered constant intimidation and threats; whereas he spent seven months in jail in 2011 before his conviction in November for insulting the country’s senior officials; whereas the authorities have retained his passport and arbitrarily barred him from travelling;
Whereas, together with other activists, Mansoor was accused of insulting political figures in the country after arranging for and signing a petition calling for greater political participation via an elected parliament with full legislative and regulatory powers;
Whereas on 15 July 2012, in his statement, the public prosecutor, announced that the detained group of political opponents would be investigated for plotting ‘crimes against state security’, ‘opposing the UAE constitution and ruling system’, and having ties to ‘foreign organisations and agendas’;
Whereas while freedom of speech and press freedom are constitutionally protected in the United Arab Emirates, its penal code allows the authorities to prosecute people for speech which is critical of the government; whereas at least one online discussion forum has been closed down, and access from the United Arab Emirates to several political websites has been blocked;
Whereas prominent internationally renowned non-governmental organisations promoting democracy in the region were closed in 2012 by the authorities of the United Arab Emirates, notably the Dubai office of the National Democratic Institute and the Abu Dhabi office of the German pro-democracy think tank Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung…
Nice to see a government taking the UAE to task for their increasingly repressive response to the Arab Spring. Wish my government would say a little more — but, alas, the United States makes a lot of money in the UAE.
For the last couple of years, I’ve been sharing this NY Times report with my journalism students. It’s about a town in the Swat valley of Pakistan taken over by the Taliban. The extremists have announced that girls are no longer allowed to go to school and will be shot if they try. The video is compelling journalism and raises an important issue for its audience — my Muslim students in the United Arab Emirates were particularly shaken by it:
I hope they all realize that the girl who cries while talking about her desire to get an education has become quite well known. Malala Yousafzai is recovering from gunshot wounds received in a Taliban attack. I pray she recovers fully and her outspoken position won’t be in vain.
This great column from Tariq Ramadan, a professor at Oxford University, calls for several radical changes in the Arab world. Read the whole thing, but I wanted to highlight a few points. First, he lays out a few facts:
The United States and its European allies would be well advised to examine why Muslims are seething. Withdrawing from Afghanistan, respecting United Nations resolutions and treaty obligations with regard to Palestine, calling back the killer drones and winding up the “war on terror” would be excellent places to start.
However, the time has come to stop blaming the West for the colonialism and imperialism of the past. Muslim-majority societies must jettison their historic posture as victims and accept that they are empowered actors, as millions of Arabs demonstrated last year by coming out into the streets and changing the course of history.
So, yes, America has certainly contributed to the damage in the Arab world, but its not the sole root of all the regional problems. Ramadan then goes on to outline the larger issue:
The Arab peoples, like those throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia, cannot, and do not want to, disregard the cultural and religious traditions that have long defined and nurtured them. As they pursue values like freedom, justice, equality, autonomy and pluralism, and new models of democracy and of international relations, they need to draw on Islamic traditions. Islam can be a fertile ground for political creativity — and not an obstacle to progress, as Orientalist thinkers in the West have so often claimed.
The Arab world, and Muslim-majority societies, need not only political uprisings, but also a thoroughgoing intellectual revolution from within that will open the door to economic change; to spiritual, religious, cultural and artistic liberation; and to the empowerment of women. The task is not an easy one.
Important points. And Islam is certainly not an impediment to this goal of intellectual liberation.
Ramadan then concludes with some suggestions for change:
There can be no true democracy in the Middle East without a profound restructuring of economic priorities, which in turn can come about only by combating corruption, limiting the prerogatives of the military, and, above all, reconsidering economic relations with other countries and the gross inequalities of wealth and income within Muslim countries. The emergence of a dynamic civil society is a precondition of success. Concern for free and critical thought must take the form of educational policies to build schools and universities, revise outdated curriculums and enable women to study, work and become financially independent.
The Arab world has shaken itself out of its lethargy after decades of apparent resignation and silence. But the uprisings do not yet amount to a revolution. The Arab world must confront its historical demons and tackle its infirmities and its contradictions: when it turns to the task, the awakening will truly have begun.
This re-building of the education system in the Arab world is key to any change. If my experience in the United Arab Emirates is any indication, the radical change in education curriculum has yet to occur, even in one of its most seemingly progressive countries. Too many topics are still taboo and no true academic freedom exists. It’s impossible to cultivate an “intellectual revolution” in a climate of fear. My arbitrary firing, for instance, sends a stark message to other Western professors that its probably better to self-censor your lessons if you’re interested in keeping your job. This environment exists because the leaders of the country tolerate it.
It’s impossible to foresee any true ‘Arab Spring of ideas’ while so many Arab leaders still appear satisfied with the status quo.
In a speech to the United Nations, the president made some fantastic points about the nature of free speech and efforts to restrict it in this age of instant global communication:
That is what we saw play out in the last two weeks, as a crude and disgusting video sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world. Now, I have made it clear that the United States government had nothing to do with this video, and I believe its message must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity.
It is an insult not only to Muslims, but to America as well — for as the city outside these walls makes clear, we are a country that has welcomed people of every race and every faith. We are home to Muslims who worship across our country. We not only respect the freedom of religion, we have laws that protect individuals from being harmed because of how they look or what they believe. We understand why people take offense to this video because millions of our citizens are among them.
I know there are some who ask why we don’t just ban such a video. And the answer is enshrined in our laws: Our Constitution protects the right to practice free speech.
Here in the United States, countless publications provoke offense. Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs. As President of our country and Commander-in-Chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day — (laughter) — and I will always defend their right to do so. (Applause.)
Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views, even views that we profoundly disagree with. We do not do so because we support hateful speech, but because our founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express their own views and practice their own faith may be threatened. We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities.
We do so because given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression; it is more speech — the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.
Now, I know that not all countries in this body share this particular understanding of the protection of free speech. We recognize that. But in 2012, at a time when anyone with a cell phone can spread offensive views around the world with the click of a button, the notion that we can control the flow of information is obsolete. The question, then, is how do we respond?
Not with calls for blasphemy legislation but with disdain and ridicule for those who spout bigotry and hate.
Just wanted to immortalize this mention I received in The Economist magazine:
Even the United Arab Emirates (UAE), long regarded as a beacon of stability, seems beset with anxiety. Six Emiratis have recently been arrested, taking to 56 the number of activists detained since the fasting month of Ramadan began on July 20th. The UAE news agency said the first 50 had plotted to destabilise the country and to “distort its shining image before the world”. An American professor of journalism, Matt Duffy, who encouraged his students to debate such issues as press freedom, was recently expelled from the UAE.
I don’t know the identity of the Mideast correspondent for The Economist — the publication famously doesn’t provide bylines for any of their articles. But, I do appreciate this person for taking the time to note my departure. I think it’s worded pretty carefully — no causation, just two statements of facts.
Now, if I can just figure out how to mention this on my CV…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
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.
Since quietly disclosing my departure, many people have asked which of my actions led to my ouster. My answer: “Who knows?” I engaged in many activities that certainly approached the unofficial “red lines” that guide levels of self-censorship here in the UAE and elsewhere in the Arab world.
Here’s a list of my Top 18 guesses:
- I wrote several newspaper columns for Dubai’s Gulf News on a variety of issues including the need to revamp media laws in the UAE.
- I appeared on Emirates 24/7 on DubaiOne and discussed a revision to the media laws. The Federal National Council had announced that they were examining the issue.
- I launched a student chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, a club dedicated to the improvement of journalism in the UAE. Last year, the government disbanded two professional groups amid worries that they were becoming unified with political goals.
- That student chapter of SPJ organized a celebration of the United Nation’s World Press Freedom Day on May 3, 2012. The event featured three well-known Emirati figures.
- I taught international media law in my classes including a detailed section on the media environment of the UAE.
- I helped launch an online student newspaper outlet called, “Zajel.” It allowed my students a place to put their journalistic endeavors, often focusing on issues that students thought should be addressed.
- I taught the “Principles of Journalism” in my advanced news writing class. Among other things, the authors stress that journalists should be independent, offer a voice to the voiceless, and monitor those in positions of power.
- Upon my students’ graduation, I tweeted a link to this Muhammad Ali video in which he declared, “I shook up the world!”
- I wrote a column in which I recommended that Bahrain not attempt to regulate speech on social media networks.
- I helped organize a conference last year in which we discussed censorship in the Arab world. The Konrad Adenhauer Stiftung, a German civil society foundation, helped us organize the event. They were kicked out of the country in May 2012.
- In May 2011, I hosted a session of DubaiDebates. The event featured Dahlia Mogahed, the former director of Abu Dhabi Gallup. That organization was kicked out of the UAE in May 2012. Also, the organizer of DubaiDebates announced a suspension of its program earlier this year, citing the current climate of the UAE.
- I defended Madonna’s appearance in Abu Dhabi.
- I hosted BoldTalks in April 2012 in Dubai. In addition to moderating, I delivered a speech in which I extolled the value of public discussion. Watch the video here or read the column here.
- I was in the process of organizing a journalism conference in Abu Dhabi for the Arab-U.S. Association of Communication Educators. The conference, slated for Nov. 16-19 at Zayed University, would provide a forum for a frank discussion of media freedom in the Arab world.
- I have a contract to write a book on media laws of the United Arab Emirates. Now that I’ve been terminated, I have even more time to dedicate to the book.
- Over the spring and summer, a polling firm conducted my survey on Emirati media consumption habits. The National Media Council and Zayed University each paid 40,000 AED to fund the survey. The survey is complete and I forwarded the results to the NMC.
- I gave an interview to the Doha Center for Media Freedom commenting on the limited coverage of the arrest and trial of several activists last year.
- I conducted research with a colleague comparing English-language and Arabic-language newspaper coverage in Abu Dhabi. The results were presented at the AUSACE conference in Beirut last year and will soon be published in an academic journal.
All of these activities seem well within my duties and obligations as a professor of communications at a university with aims of being competitive on an international level. Trying to guess which activity crossed the “red line” would have forced me to curtail all my work. That’s how self-censorship works.
First off, for my friends and students who didn’t receive advance warning about my departure, my apologies. I wanted to keep it quiet until I was out of the country. Please know that I would like to keep in touch with everyone – my email address is mattjduffy – at – gmail.com.
My family has already relocated back the Atlanta area. My kids started school there in mid-August and my wife and been setting up shop for us. I, too, have just returned to the United States.
The kids took the news of our abrupt departure well. We had often stressed the transitory nature of life in the UAE and the precarious position prodded by my activities. My wife has been very supportive throughout this experience. It’s not often that a wife must forgive her husband for causing her to lose her job, abandon her volunteer commitments and leave a country. Thanks for being so wonderful, Ann.
I plan to find a full-time teaching position in the Atlanta area either in the spring or next fall. My wife and I both received our contractually obligated severance packages, so we’re not suffering financially. My wife—who holds a PhD in Education Policy and more than two decades of experience improving public schools—is having no problem finding work. Ann was far more valuable to the UAE than I.
In the meantime, I plan to write my book on media laws of the UAE for the International Encyclopedia of Media Laws. I’m wrapping up a report on media regulations in the GCC countries for the Doha Center for Media Freedom. And I’m working on a plan for a series of reports on “best practice” models for media and communication legislation in the Arab World. Many countries such as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia are struggling with delineating the appropriate boundaries for free speech.
I would like to stress that I hold no ill will toward the United Arab Emirates. I met many great Emiratis–as well as wonderful people from a wide swath of nationalities–and will cherish these relationships for the rest of my life. My family and I truly appreciate the opportunity to have such an enriching experience.
In my news writing classes, I stress to students the importance of including supporting documentation along with their reports. In that spirit, I offer the following documents for your perusal:
1) My termination notice from Zayed University. I had one year remaining on my contract.
2) My wife’s termination notice from Abu Dhabi Education Council.
3) My April 2012 performance review, lest anyone imply that my termination had anything to do with performance.
The Occupy movement — largely fueled by pervasive social media — represents an attempt from “the crowd” to express their dissatisfaction with the status quo. In a way, these protesters are behaving like all the other anonymous bands of groups who engage in civil disobedience, railing against some real or imagined injustice.
Other such groups include: the people running Wikileaks, the Anonymous group of web hackers, illegal music downloaders, and even the students in the UAE who cheat on their final exams by spreading the answers via BlackBerry Messenger. I see a link between these seemingly disparate groups — they all have a beef with “the system” and use technology to fight back.
But my column is really about trying to understand the anger of the Wall Street protesters. Of course, the anger persists in the populations of Americans, Greeks, Spanish, and many other countries. My conclusion — it seems as though politicians and executives have lost sight of their moral compass:
Political conservatives often tout the writings of Adam Smith, the 18th-century author of “Wealth of Nations,” who persuasively argued for the benefits of the free market. In it, he stressed that an “invisible hand” helps guide the market toward providing good for all. Smith said that a businessman would provide more benefit to society than any “lawgiver or statesmen” even though he is “pursuing his own interest”.
Economists such as Marx, Keynes and Friedman have debated for years over whether this “invisible hand” really works. But, capitalism — not government spending — has some clear advantages. Many people have gotten a kick out of seeing protesters on Wall Street getting money out of ATMs and buying Starbucks coffee, for instance. Despite all our complaints, many of us enjoy the comforts of living in a world that free-market capitalism has created.
But, one part of Smith’s philosophy receives too little attention. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith wrote that “by acting according to the dictates of our moral faculties, we necessarily pursue the most effective means for promoting the happiness of mankind.”
Smith assumes that everyone will operate with some type of ethical oversight, what he called referred to as “moral faculties”.
Perhaps more than anything, these protests represent a belief that some corporate executives have lost touch with the idea of virtue — ethical underpinnings about the right way to act that transcend all boundaries. During this economic downturn, many observers have called for a fundamental recalibration of our values. They’ve asked us all to step back for a moment and make sure we’re living life according to the right set of ideals.
Probably a good idea.
The following links and explanations should help provide an understanding of the state of journalism, media laws and press freedoms in the UAE:
- My Gulf News article “Revised media law for the UAE” outlines a suggestion for a new media law in the UAE. Essentially, I propose starting with the Abu Dhabi Media Zone’s content guidelines which starts with an understanding of the unique cultural situation in the Emirates.
- I’ve written three articles for Dubai’s Gulf News about impediments to a free press in the United Arab Emirates: Challenges facing press freedom, Civil courts should handle defamation, and UAE journalists need more legal protections.
- At Mideast Posts, you can read my observations about the local press and its coverage of sensitive topics: UAE newspapers and the self-censorship debate (concerning self-censorship at The National), Peninsula journalism attack resonates regionally, Newspapers inconsistent over blogger arrests, and UAE media breaks silence on Emirat’s arrest.
- My blog post about the CNN interview with HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid that explores his thoughts on freedom of expression in the UAE.
- I’ve also written many posts about the news coverage and other issues in the UAE. See them all here.
- Sam Potter’s “A paralysis of analysis.” Features quotes from Ibrahim Al Abed, director general of the National Media Council, the media regulatory agency in the UAE, defending the highly criticized draft press law. Here’s my post about an interview with Abed in the Gulf News.
- Dana El-Baltaji’s “Emirites Press Law.” Summarizes the draft press law and the concerns of its critics. The country’s ruler never signed the law, so it’s effectively dead. The country still operates under the 1980 Press and Publications Law. The government news agency WAM recently reported that H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s decree that journalists shouldn’t go to jail for doing their job should be considered law.
- Abdulla Rasheed’s “The ceiling of press freedom is falling.” The Abu Dhabi editor of Gulf News complains about government interference. (Abed cited this column as an indication that a free press exists in the UAE.)
- The Open Net Initative’s report on Internet filtering in the UAE. Study from 2009 finds “substantial” political filtering and “pervasive” social censorship.
- Andrew Mill’s “A Vision in the Desert.” Details The National newspaper’s efforts to bring Western-style journalism to the UAE. The founding editor, Martin Newland, left his position as editor of the London Telegraph to take the job but left after about a year. His replacement, Hassan Fattah, was a Mideast reporter for the New York Times before joining The National as a deputy editor. Many observers agree that the paper has become more timid since Newland’s departure for a position with Abu Dhabi Media, the paper’s government-backed owner. Still, I’ve commented frequently on the good journalism at The National and most observers also note the media here have greatly improved over the past five years.
- My interview with the Doha Center for Media Freedom about the coverage of the “UAE5” trial in the UAE in 2011.
Please send any me any additional links or ask me any questions. Send email to mattjduffy – at – gmail.com. (I occasionally update and re-publish this post.)
The video above features boxer Mohammad Ali praising the benefits of the open-source operating system, Linux. “Shake Things Up!,” he declares. “Shake up the world!”
My recent column in Dubai’s Gulf News examined the difference between open-source and closed-source systems. We can see this disparity illustrated in a variety of areas: Android phones vs. Blackberry, Wikipedia vs. Encyclopedia Britannica, open-access academic journals vs. closed-access publications, and YouTube vs. television news.
I wrote that the march toward more open systems and shared knowledge has already and will continue to “shake things up”:
While some may debate whether open-source or closed-source systems are more beneficial, the road of history appears to be leading steadily toward a more open-sourced vision. The benefits of an open-sourced systems include an increased acceptance of new ideas and a quicker pace toward innovation — far more so that in closed systems.
Open-source projects also tend to benefit from the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ with ideas and innovations that could be missed in closed environments. Most importantly, open-source systems are transparent — nothing is hidden from view, allowing anyone to offer their input equally.
I’ll close with another Linux commercial, one that stresses the importance of sharing knowledge. It’s good to see open-source approaches gaining acceptance, but the closed-source culture is deeply ingrained in many organizations.
Sorry for my disappointing headline, but I think it reflects reality.
My recent column in Gulf News addressed the blocking of the Skype voice-over-Internet service in the United Arab Emirates. I pointed out that occasionally a news report would indicate that the block may soon be lifted — but there’s little evidence to suggest the government will change its position anytime soon. Here’s a bit from the column:
Still, the blocking of Skype seems to be a widely disdained practice — particularly with the large expatriate community who would like to use the service legally to speak to relatives and friends back home. From time to time, expatriates get excited at the prospect that the government may lift the Skype ban.
This happened last week following comments made by Mohammad Al Ganem, Director-General of TRA, during a one-hour Q&A session on the Twitter platform.
Users could tweet questions to Al Ganem and he responded to many inquiries, including a query about whether Skype would ever be unblocked. Al Ganem responded that Skype would be unblocked as soon as the company applied for a telecom licence in the UAE.
“It is purely a licensing matter,” he said. “I hope they come to TRA for a licence.”
The only problem with this position is that Skype is never going to apply for a licence to operate in the UAE, because Skype doesn’t apply for licences to operate anywhere. That’s why it’s free. Users simply download the software and start making calls.
Most governments don’t interfere with this process — Skype hasn’t had to apply for any licences to operate in the 150 countries where it’s not blocked. Quite simply, Skype will continue to not work in the UAE until the TRA decides to revise its position on the regulation of VoIP services.
My advice: Accept that Skype is blocked and look into technological alternatives.
Just wanted to acknowledge that the celebration of World Press Freedom Day at my university went off quite well. The student chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists deserves the lion’s share of the credit as well as our three Emirati speakers who all stressed the need for more press freedom and better journalism in the UAE.
One of my students put together an incredible Storify that summarized the whole day. Here’s the link.
May 3 is World Press Freedom Day, marked by the United Nations to “celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom.” The UN will be hosting a conference in Tunisia and students at my university have organized their own celebration. They’re pretty excited about it — evidenced by the size of the banner above.
Our student chapter of the UAE Society of Professional Journalists organized the event under the tutelage of my fantastic colleague Dr. David Bulla. We’ll have three Emirati speakers on campus who will speak about issues surrounding press freedom: Mishaal al Gergawi, a public affairs commentator; Noura al Kaabi, a member of the Federal National Council and CEO of TwoFour54, an Arab media incubator; and Mohammad al Hammadi, the editor-in-chief of National Geographic Arabia. Activities include a Debate Club debate, poetry readings, soapbox speeches and T-shirt and food giveaways. It’s shaped up to be a pretty great event, and I’m quite proud of the students who have made it happen.
To follow along with the activities, check out the Twitter hashtag #ZU_WPFD.
While I’m discussing press freedom, allow me to reference my last column in Gulf News. I suggested that the Abu Dhabi Media Authority’s content guidelines would make an excellent foundation for a new press law in the United Arab Emirates. These guidelines, while making sure to respect local culture and sensibilities, provide plenty of space to practice good journalism. My conclusion:
In this respect, one part of the media zone’s guidelines is stunning and notably absent in the UAE’s current and draft media laws. The guidelines make clear the editorial justification that allows the media to disseminate the news even if it “has the potential to cause harm.”
Editorial justifications, according to the MZA code, include “the exposure of crime, corruption, antisocial behaviour, injustice or serious impropriety, protecting public health or safety, exposing lies, hypocrisy or materially misleading claims made by individuals or organisations, disclosing incompetence, and negligence or dereliction of duty that affects the public.”
The guidelines essentially authorise news outlets to practice the type of healthy watchdog journalism commonplace in many nations. A UAE news organisation operating under a media law based on this code would feel empowered to investigate wrongdoing and public malfeasance without worry of any retribution. Even if the police, prosecutors or an offended party took issue with a report and took the journalist to court, a judge would have to weigh the reporting against the stated legal protections regarding the exposure of wrongdoing. Such a law would drastically improve the ability of journalists to practise good journalism in the UAE.
As Arab countries struggle with the new realities of a post-Arab Spring world, many will be taking a look at their media laws — all of which reflect an outdated mass media era. Indeed, Qatar recently announced that their government would soon issue a revision of its media law. The UAE should lead the way in this effort. In a country that excels at firsts, a revised media law based on these culturally sensitive content guidelines would provide an excellent example for the Arab world to follow.
Will be interesting to see if we see any movement on this issue — from the UAE, Qatar or any other countries in the Middle East.