Press freedom rankings decline in UAE

The United Arab Emirates saw its rankings in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index drop from 87 to 112. Here’s the explanation from the report:

… [A]bove all because of its Internet filtering policy and the imprisonment of Ahmed Mansoor, a blogger who administers the
online pro-democracy forum Al-Hewar (“The Dialogue”), from 8 April to 28 November along with four other activists, known collectively as “The UAE 5.” He was reportedly mistreated while detained and his family was repeatedly threatened.

At the end of the day, these types of “watchdog” reports can be quite arbitrary. One could argue, for instance, that the local press’ sparse coverage of the arrest and trial of Mansoor actually represents an improvement in critical reporting here. Still, the drop in rankings does reflect the reality of the situation — the arrests definitely led to a decline in free expression in the United Arab Emirates. But, the pardon of the UAE5 (unmentioned in the report) certainly helped people here breathe a little easier.

As I recently wrote in Dubai’s Gulf News, a solution to improving the press rankings in the UAE would be for the government to overhaul its media law. The 1980 Press and Publication Act provides little protection for working journalists. That my editorial appeared in a Dubai newspaper shows that there’s probably more press freedom here than many might suspect.

By | January 31st, 2012|Uncategorized|2 Comments

On the effects of state-led media in the UAE

Just stumbled across this interview with Dr. Sulaiman Al Hattlan, an academic and journalist, with astute observations about the media in the United Arab Emirates. Read this part of the interview:

In the Arab world, however, journalism started as a party voice or as an official voice to governments. Hence we have various issues. First, we can’t differentiate properly between media and advertising, between propaganda and reporting, between public relations and journalism, between opinion and news, or between news and analysis.

Second, there is a lack of independence in many Arabic media corporations, which were originally attached to governments or influential personalities in their societies, and that continue to serve political or commercial interests. Moreover, there is an important cultural matter, namely the absence of critical spirit and self- criticism in our culture.

Finally, with the arrival of New Media and citizen journalism, that allows for all to express and to have their input in building the general public opinion, we are witnessing such a mixture of criticism and blunt accusations, that the reader has difficulty in discerning between the actual responsible and constructive criticism and the one based on rumours and lies. So, in a climate like this, the challenges within the media sector are increasing. It is my sincere wish that we should somehow try to accelerate our steps towards building a civil society based on the concepts of polite conversation, the respect of others’ opinions and the importance of accurate information.

Yes. What an eloquent summation of the problems with the media system in this region.

By | January 10th, 2012|Uncategorized|2 Comments

UAE press ignores coalition statement on activists’ trial

The Washington Post and other international news outlets just published this Associated Press article detailing the condemnation of the UAE’s trial against five activists here:

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A coalition of international human rights organizations on Thursday accused the United Arab Emirates of violating international legal standards by prosecuting five jailed campaigners for political reforms in the oil-rich Gulf country.

The statement by the 7-member alliance marks the highest level international pressure over the trial. The charges could carry long prison terms.

The activists, including a prominent blogger and an economics professor who has lectured at the Abu Dhabi branch of Paris’ Sorbonne university, were charged with anti-state crimes after signing an Internet petition calling for constitutional changes and free elections.Political activity is severely restricted in the UAE, an alliance of seven semiautonomous states, each ruled by a sheik who inherits the post. There are no official opposition groups in the country, and political parties are banned.

The UAE has not had street protests like those that erupted this year across the Middle East, including in neighboring Bahrain. Authorities moved aggressively to keep demands for political change, inspired by the Arab Spring revolts, out of the Gulf federation that includes the glitzy city-state Dubai.

The five activists were arrested in April and charged with insulting the UAE’s rulers and endangering the country’s security. If convicted on all charges, they could face decades in prison.

A verdict is expected Nov. 27. The defendants have no right to appeal.

The decision of the English-language press to ignore this story shows the type of self-censorship prevalent in this country. While journalism in the UAE has certainly improved in the last few years, it still suffers from huge ethical lapses such as the avoidance of contextual reporting on this trial. The main newspapers have run articles after each court appearance, but they have devoted no space at all to the controversy surrounding the arrests. The press has ignored important aspects of the case such as this denouncement from human rights groups and a statement from one of the activists detailing alleged abuses in jail while awaiting the trial.

This abdication of journalistic duty is important to note. As I detailed in my recent research on media literacy in the UAE, what a press outlet chooses to cover has profound impact on the knowledge of media consumers. The people of the UAE deserve to know about the context surrounding this trial, and the press does them a terrible disservice by ignoring crucial elements of the story.

Of course, everyone in the United Arab Emirates expects no less. The rules about “red lines” coverage are well documented in the UAE and throughout the Arab world. Still, journalists in the UAE should limit their self-congratulations for progress in the country, while collectively agreeing to ignore such an important topic.

By | November 4th, 2011|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Research compares English and Arabic press in Abu Dhabi

Here are my slides from my presentation in Beirut today at the Arab-U.S. Association of Communication Educators. My co-author, Saba ElGhul-Bebawi, and I examined a month’s coverage from Al Ittihad and The National in Abu Dhabi. Here’s the abstract:

This study explores differences in journalistic practice between two newspapers in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The authors compare one month of coverage of The National, an English-language newspaper, and Al Ittihad, an Arabic-language newspaper, to examine how each critically reports the news. This research aims to understand how both newspapers construct news for the audiences they serve and, in turn, understand the extent to which each newspaper affects the formation of media literacy within the United Arab Emirates. Using Kovach and Rosenthiel’s Principles of Journalism as a theoretical foundation, this study uses textual analysis to examine the presentation of photos, placement of articles, and the construction and omission of news. The conclusions provide insight into the differences in journalism practices between the two newspapers.

Several members of the audience, including NPR’s Andy Carvin, live-tweeted the presentation. See a storify version of their comments here.

You can download the presentation here.

By | October 30th, 2011|Uncategorized|1 Comment

Our FNC forum allows for public discussion of recent elections

FNC forum from Al Ittihad

About 200 people attended our recent Federal National Council election symposium organized by my College of Communications and Media Sciences and the Konrad Adenhauer Stiftung, a German foundation. Above is a picture of coverage from the local Arabic newspaper, Al Ittihad. The English-language newspaper, The National, also covered the event.

We discussed the role the media played in the elections as well as ways to increase awareness of the Federal National Council, the deliberative body for which elections were held. Two newly elected members of the Federal National Council, Sheikha Eisa Ghanem Al Ari or Umm al Quainn and Salem Mohammed Al-Ameri of Abu Dhabi, joined several other Emirati observers for a discussion of the Sept. 24 elections which was marked by low voter turnout.

Some main points:

1) Many observers called for the FNC to have greater powers — and the leadership of the country has indicated that plan is in the works. Dr Ebtisam Al Kitbi, of UAE University, said that the FNC should be able to hold government ministers accountable.

2) Nasser Al Skaikh, a businessman and FNC candidate, hammered home the point that the news media needed to cover the FNC sessions, not just the elections. Many Emiratis still have no idea what the FNC is or what it does. He stressed that if the media did a better job covering the current FNC session, then the next elections in 2016 would feature better voter turnout.

3) Diana Hamade, a lawyer and legal rights activist, pointed out that the television coverage of the elections was virtually non-existent. Some warned that television news shows may have avoided covering any candidates, for fear of running afoul with National Election Committee campaign speech rules. She and other members also stressed that schools and universities needed to help educate citizens about the FNC. Public affairs commentator Mishaal al Gergawi stressed that Emiratis are largely politically unaware.

4) FNC member Salem Al Ameri denied that tribalism played a role in his elections, despite the fact that three of the four candidates elected from Abu Dhabi were members of the Al Ameri tribe. He said that he used advertising and social media to reach his audience.

5) We discussed the urgent need for more Emiratis to take journalism positions in the UAE. Although no firm numbers are available, the vast majority of UAE journalists are ex-pats. I spoke after the forum with three Emirati journalists from Al Bayan who told me only 5 percent of their staff were Emiratis.

The best part of the conference for me was the ability for my Emirati students to see a group of UAE nationals discuss important issues in a public forum. For most if not all of them, this was the first time they’d been exposed to this sort of event. Many of them told me they were thrilled to take part and looked forward to future forums. (And surely some of them attended only because I offered extra credit.)

I will post some videos of the event at some point in the future — may take a while to edit them. Later this week, I plan on working with my students to create a Storify document that highlights the best Twitter posts from the forum hashtag, #CPA11.

Thanks to the fine folks at Konrad Adenhauer Stiftung, the German foundation that helped us organize the event.

By | October 23rd, 2011|Uncategorized|0 Comments