UAE journalism

Despite Arab Spring, ‘culture of repression’ continues to undermine press freedoms in Middle East

Anyone looking for an overall picture of freedom of expression and the press since the Arab Awakening that started in 2011 may want to read my recent article published in Jadaliyya. The analysis examines the moves taken in Arab countries since the unrest around the region–particularly the legal actions taken by governments. The result is rather depressing, particularly from the countries that haven’t yet seen any political change.

Most of these countries use the following legal methods to intimidate journalists and social media activists: Criminal defamation, “insult the ruler” charges, laws against “false communication,” censorship to protect public order, and the licensing of journalists.  Years of government intimidation have created a “culture of repression.” Here’s the section about this issue:

But, perhaps the biggest limitation to Arab journalism (and, again, forgive me for speaking in generalities) is the effect of years of repression on the profession. Many journalists simply accept that they cannot do their jobs properly and have acquiesced to the situation. Others, who have been elevated to positions of authority in Arab newsrooms, have become adept at censoring the journalists under them. In countless discussions with journalists in the Arab world, I’ve heard that editors often do the jobs of government officials by killing the stories they sense may cause trouble.

In his book, “The New Arab Journalist,” Lawrence Pintak reveals many examples of self-censorship in the Arab world. An editor for a Saudi paper says “we know our limits and in a way practice self-censorship. There have been troubles when red lines have been crossed.” And an Egyptian reporter working for an Emirates newspaper said he had asked himself “two or three times what will be the reaction” before publishing an article. Another Gulf editor said it plainly: “Our press is infected with the self-censorship virus.”

The effect of this self-censorship is depressing. Perhaps some of the troubles of the Arab Spring—unemployment, government corruption, and stagnant economic growth—could have been addressed if the news media weren’t beaten down by government harassment. But, these issues were ignored by a timid Arab press and allowed to fester. Despite the proliferation of media outlets in some of these countries, the overwhelming stance is for the media to continue to tow the government line. One newspaper that challenged the status quo in Egypt, the Egypt Independent, sadly shut down earlier this year because it couldn’t stay afloat financially.

These broad criticisms refer to the local press in each country and how they cover their own government and business interests. Many press outlets provide laudable coverage of situations in neighboring countries. For example, The National in the United Arab Emirates closely covers arrests in Kuwait, Oman, and other Arab countries over freedom of speech issues. However, when reporting on arrests in its own country, the paper defers to government statements or muted trial coverage.

Fed up with the old media outlets that self-censor at home, many residents have turned to Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to give and receive impartial and unfiltered information. The result was an explosion throughout much of the Arab world. Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen have all seen their long-time autocratic rulers depart. The state-aligned local media could not protect them. And those countries that haven’t yet seen a change in leadership are worried about their future and keen to stop social media from evolving into a space for free expression. All of the Arab sheikdoms have made arrests for speech on Twitter—sending an important signal the people that they expect boundaries to be respected. Kuwait has arrested dozens of people on “insulting the Emir” charges, while the UAE has arrested scores of residents (mostly over what they said on social media platforms) and ultimately charged them with sedition. Even in Qatar–which hosts the Al Jazeera and the Doha Centre for Media Freedom–convicted a poet and sentenced him to 15 years in prison because of a poem in which he said that all Arabs lived under similar free speech conditions as pre-revolution Tunisians.

Please read the rest of the article–it includes a slew of hyperlinks to my sources.

By | June 19th, 2013|Uncategorized|3 Comments

World Press Freedom Day a huge success at ZU

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.

By | May 16th, 2012|Uncategorized|0 Comments

World Press Freedom Day

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.

By | May 2nd, 2012|Uncategorized|1 Comment

Addressing corruption in Middle East journalism, PR fields

My recent column in Gulf News discusses the issue of bribing journalists for coverage in the UAE and Arab world.

PR professionals will offer cash or gifts in exchange for favorable articles or broadcast reports. I’ve also heard that advertising salespeople will sell editorial coverage as part of a package to clients — a clear violation of independence for newsrooms. Most observers say these practices are rampant in the region.

Here’s the last bit of my column:

In order for codes of ethics to work, organisations need to enforce them. Last month, a US newspaper fired its photographer because he electronically altered a picture to make it look better. His actions violated the US journalistic code of ethics that states clearly that journalists should “never distort the content of news photos”.

By punishing those violating rules of ethics, organisations help create a culture that respects high standards of behaviour.

I’ve never seen a report of a journalist in the UAE being fired for an ethical violation. (A representative from a local daily at the event said that the newspaper had indeed quietly fired two business reporters for ethical violations. I remarked that such actions should probably be more public).

MEPRA has publicly reprimanded one of its members for an ethics lapse — an important step towards helping to create a culture that respects proper professional standards.

The second solution is to promote personal integrity. The concept of integrity is universal — my Emirati ethics students tell me the Arabic word is nazahah. In any culture, the word means doing the right thing regardless of others or even if acting in such a manner carries a personal cost.

Personal integrity is important because research shows that group norms can be a powerful influencer of behaviour. Often-times, people ‘go along’ with unethical behaviour because they see others doing the same. But if one person stands up and objects, then others may find the courage to voice their own concerns.

Perhaps the culture would change if more practitioners — both in public relations and journalism — would simply voice their uneasiness with the status quo.

Attempting to change an ingrained culture may appear to be too daunting a task to tackle.

However, with enforcement of ethics codes and a commitment to personal integrity, the journalism and public relations professions in the UAE can work together to raise their level of professional standards.

Every solution starts with an admission that there’s a problem.

By | March 24th, 2012|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Social media changes UAE landscape

The last few paragraphs of my column in Gulf News today on the latest press freedom rankings which saw the UAE decline because of Internet filtering and other factors:

One overriding message from the Arab Spring is that technology has provided a powerful tool for the free flow of information. Old approaches towards regulation and control are still effective, but Facebook, Twitter and YouTube increasingly allow for messages to circumvent restrictions.

Indeed, some of the conversations once reserved for the blocked Al Hewar website are now taking place in plain view amid the UAE’s vibrant Twitter community.

Aided by new technology, the trend towards more communication and less ability to control appears to be inevitable. But, how governments choose to respond to this new reality is still up for debate.

Perhaps next year’s press freedom rankings will help us answer the question.

This column meshes nicely with my other published pieces on press freedom and freedom of expression in the UAE. Click on the links to read “Civl courts should handle defamation” and “UAE journalists need more legal protections.”

By | February 10th, 2012|Uncategorized|1 Comment