ABU DHABI: Few would disagree that there has been significant progress on press freedom in the UAE in recent years, with the new leadership espousing greater openness. The foreign language press in particular has taken advantage of this to touch on many subjects deemed far too risky in the past.
Nonetheless, there are clearly still areas of mistrust between the authorities and journalists, hampering the development of a healthy and independent media.
The issue was brought sharply into focus last week with the arrest and subsequent release of a journalist from the English-language Gulf News. Bassma al-Jandaly was detained on June 16 at Dubai International Airport and prevented from leaving the country under an arrest warrant from the Sharjah police department. The warrant had been issued against her and the newspaper's editor, Duraid al-Baik, over an article published in February about the so-called 'Sharjah Slasher', a man who had been attacking women in the emirate.
Al-Jandaly was released after a few hours following the personal intervention of UAE Interior Minister Lieutenant General Sheikh Saif bin Zayed al-Nahyan, who demanded that the arrest warrants against the two journalists be withdrawn and that police departments draw up new mechanisms for dealing with future cases against journalists.
The minister's intervention was immediately hailed as a sign that the government is serious about strengthening and respecting press freedom and media rights. Sheikh Saif was adding action to a wave of official statements in favour of easing restrictions on the flow of information to the public. Other key cabinet members, such as Information Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed and Education Minister Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, have also recently made radical statements in favour of withdrawing censorship laws.
"Everyone has the right to choose and select information and is wise enough to make that choice," Sheikh Nahyan declared at an Abu Dhabi book fair back in April. "No book should be banned and no information should be withheld from the public in this day and age."
Sheikh Abdullah, meanwhile, has repeatedly said that internet access should not be restricted in the UAE and that the Arab media should be emancipated from the laws that confine it.
Declaring support for press freedom, however, does not ensure a free press. Sheikh Nahyan's comments sparked controversy, not least because his own ministry restricts access to many books in schools and colleges. Famously, the Harry Potter series of children's novels was banned from schools in 2002 (albeit before Sheikh Nahyan took over the ministry) because it was deemed contrary to Islamic values. But of greater concern is the restriction of access to textbooks on anatomy and physiology, which impedes the study of subjects such as reproduction and medicine.
Meanwhile, Sheikh Abdullah's comments about the internet do not appear to refer to sites that are deemed inconsistent with "the religious, cultural, political and moral values of the United Arab Emirates". Not all sites blocked for this reason are pornographic.
Meanwhile, when it comes to restrictions on the media, the UAE ranks a dismal 137th in the world, according to the Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Sans Frontières. This is worse even than countries like Egypt, Sudan and Yemen, where the tone of the press is considered less reverential towards the authorities. The country certainly does better than many of its GCC partners, but a favourable comparison to Saudi Arabia does not cut much ice.
Officially, the UAE constitution guarantees freedom of expression, but the law also specifically prohibits - under penalty of imprisonment - criticism of the government, ruling families and friendly governments if such articles threaten social stability or the economic health of the nation. No satisfactory explanation has been given regarding the al-Jandaly case, but presumably it was under these restrictions that she originally fell foul of Sharjah's authorities.
In truth, official attacks on the freedom of the press are rare, although this is largely due to self-censorship at most publications, which constitutes the primary reason for the UAE's low ranking on the Press Freedom Index. The UAE government, explains the International Press Institute in its World Freedom Press Review, does not need to harass the media, since indirect media control is already effective.
Privately owned newspapers receive government subsidies. And the government-owned Emirates News Agency (WAM) regularly provides newspapers with themes for editorials and with both domestic and international news pieces, which are usually printed verbatim. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Information licenses all publications and approves the appointment of editors.
Such strict control of the media means that challenging articles are seldom published in the local press and investigative journalism is almost non-existent, while editorials and opinion pieces rarely touch on domestic issues at all. There are signs of slow but positive change, but local reporting remains far from effective.
Journalists accused of defamation are prosecuted in criminal, rather than civil, courts and the law pursues the individual rather than the newspapers for which they work. Treating free reporting as a crime ensures that journalists avoid upsetting powerful figures for fear of reprisals. This problem is ubiquitous in the GCC, where ruling families remain acutely sensitive of any criticism. Even in Qatar, the fabled al-Jazeera satellite station studiously avoids any coverage of contentious local issues. The UAE's satellite stations - al-Arabiya and Abu Dhabi TV - have followed the same line despite being officially censorship-free.
However, Sheikh Abdullah has called for the press to utilise its freedom more effectively, saying media institutions that exist only to serve applause are of no value to the government or to the people. But calls for media freedom sometimes lack credibility. Reporting is notoriously poor in the nation's capital, in part because most publications work from Dubai, but also because local politics is so opaque, information is unavailable and criticism of the most powerful players is still taboo.
While Sheikh Saif was quick to intercede in favour of a journalist who fell foul of the authorities in Sharjah, some analysts say his commitment has yet to be tested in his own emirate. In the end, a new publishing law protecting the rights of journalists would do far more for press freedom than statements of good intention.
Lack of information and restriction of access is a further issue for the UAE's press. Journalists complain that officials are often unavailable or unwilling to comment, especially on the record. There is a culture of secrecy in the government, even among those who purport to believe in the freedom of the press, one local journalist told OBG.
A worse problem is the exclusion of journalists from the scene of major public interest stories. When the dry docks in Dubai flooded in 2002, journalists were not allowed access to the site to report. Journalists attempting to investigate conditions in labour camps in Dubai and Sharjah have been assaulted by the companies that run them, and the authorities themselves sometimes show little more restraint. When a plane crashed in Sharjah in 2004, two journalists who attempted to report the incident were assaulted by Sharjah police. It should be noted, however, that Sheikh Saif condemned this attack.
Despite all this, there is no doubt that the situation has improved much for the press in recent years. The very fact that censorship and press freedom has been discussed extensively in the media following the al-Jandaly case is surely a sign of positive change - not to mention recent articles in the English language press regarding civil liberties and the human rights of migrant labourers, which have pushed the envelope even further.
Sheikh Saif's intervention in the al-Jandaly case should also bring greater confidence to journalists. The fact that senior members of the government and the al-Nahyan family have declared press freedom a national goal hails a better future. Nonetheless, if imprisonment and assault continue to await reporters who dare to show the ugly side of life in the UAE, or to criticise the ruling families, self-censorship will remain a problem - hampering the development of healthy political debate and a political class that can take the country forward.