Register now and also receive a complimentary 2-month licence to the OBG Research Terminal.Register Here×
A recent court ruling and a statement from the Zabeel Palace have reinforced Dubai's
commitment to a stronger media, now seen as vital to getting the struggling sector developing faster.
On October 8, Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid, Crown Prince of Dubai, met with 500 media representatives and assured them that the UAE would uphold freedom and respect the press.
However, "The media is a doubled-edge knife," Sheikh Mohammed added, according to the Emirates News Agency WAM, "and media personnel should work on showing their civilised, cultural, human face to the public."
The statement was made all the more pertinent the following day by a court ruling which announced that a long standing case brought against two reporters had been overturned.
On trial were two journalists accused of libel for tarnishing the reputation of Sharjah Municipality after publishing an article in 1999 in a local Arabic daily, al-Ittihad. This had alleged that chickens transported in a cargo plane bound for Sharjah had died onboard because of poor ventilation.
The so-called "chicken politics" case then began when Sharjah Municipality claimed that the article had unjustly and inaccurately reported that the chickens' deaths were caused by the municipality.
After six years of legal wrangling, the verdict by the Sharjah Court of Appeals was hailed by Salim Sha'ali, the attorney for the two defendants, as "a big victory for freedom of expression, which the constitution guarantees to all".
The chicken case has not been the only press rights issue in the courts recently. In June 2005, another reporter was arrested, this time at Dubai airport, over an article she had written about a murder case in Sharjah, which officials claimed may have alerted the target of their investigation and allowed him to escape.
She was later released on the orders of Sheikh Saif bin Zayed, Minister of the Interior, who then urged that the rights of the press should be "reserved and protected".
Yet despite these recent moves towards openness, media development in the UAE continues to under-perform. Particularly in Dubai, which has carved out a niche for itself on the basis of its liberal economic and social policies, the slowness of the media's evolution is striking.
Journalists report that they are still being intimidated when they try to tackle controversial subjects, or more importantly, target powerful people. Direct criticism of the government remains taboo - particularly if centred on its foreign and fiscal policies. Missing from the press is any discussion of the pending Free Trade Agreement, as well as most stories that have to do with the US, Israel or even intra-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) relations - unless the copy is generated by wire services. But most occurrences of media interference come from medium to high-ranking nationals who do not like the content of a story and have enough influence to spike it.
Reporters Sans Frontières this year ranked the UAE 137th out of 162 countries for press freedom, putting the Emirates below Algeria, Afghanistan and Yemen, while also putting it below Qatar and Kuwait in the GCC.
This poor showing is underlined by insufficient access to information in the UAE; reliable statistics, usually vital to an important emerging economy like Dubai, are virtually non-existent, and authorities will often restrict access to scenes of local potential news scenes, like accidents or unrest. Ministers and high officials will rarely go on record saying anything that is not a press release; even financial analysts are hard to pin down.
"Nobody here wants to talk on the record," said one local journalist, who would not be named, expressing frustration with the process. "There aren't even brokers who will respond to phone calls."
However, many insist that there have been gains in the sector, even if they are not at the same pace as the rest of the economy. Such previously avoided topics as human rights violations, underage camel jockeys, workers' rights and terrorism would never have been breached only five years ago.
Explaining much of what is left out, as in many Middle Eastern markets, critics point to self-censorship too.
"Self censorship is the biggest problem," says Abdul Hamid Ahmad, Editor in Chief of Gulf News. "We do it to ourselves."
After years of control, many journalists have become accustomed to avoiding controversial subjects and are unwilling to push the limits, even if some of these areas are not be off limits these days.
Complicating matters is the fact that most of the UAE's media personnel are non-local (perhaps over 90%), and depend on the government to issue their visas, fearing they are always a few controversial words away from finding themselves on the next plane home.
Yet despite the self-censorship problem, a few new media operations have been opened with the aim of pushing at previously untouched boundaries. In Dubai, the recently launched Emirates Today hired top media people from the region and promised to deliver cutting edge coverage, while being freer that any other current paper. But after a few weeks their initial euphoria was tempered after a barrage of pressure from the powers-that-be forced them to back off on some of their coverage.
So if the UAE languishes at the back of the pack for media freedom, why are media people still coming to the emirate? For many, it is the salaries, which can be up to five times higher than what any other paper in the region would pay. Other benefits too are generous, like paid trips home and decent living conditions, showing that Dubai companies are at least are willing to shell out top dirham for the best talent.
The challenge now of course, is loosening regulations so these people can actually use the talent these companies are paying for. In order for this to happen, there must be changes in legislation - namely changing the aging Printing Law of 1980 that bans news that could harm the national currency or economy, which many journalists feel is a law that can be used against them at any time.
Now though, government officials at the highest levels are making the right noises when it comes to liberalising the press, and will make moves to ensure that more "chicken politics" cases do not surface.
But there must be more concrete action taken to squeeze out the long tradition of media manipulation, such as when influential members of society crush coverage they do not find favourable, or the media runs the risk of becoming a strangely anachronistic animal in one of the most exciting new economies of the Middle East.