Much has improved in the past 2 decades, but the UAE still ranks an astonishingly dismal 137th in the world on respected free-speech organisation Reporters Sans Frontiers’ Press Freedom Index, sitting below such “havens of tolerance” as Yemen, Sudan & Egypt.
At the turn of the millennium, openly recommending anything other than a “hops-based beverage” or “bottle of grape beverage” brought unwanted attention from authorities.
In an online survey in 2005, over 80% of residents agreed:
Dubai’s heavy censorship is a real cause for concern.
“The problem is restriction of access” a journalist explains. “There was a big accident at the dry docks and they didn’t allow us in. We reported their statement but added our eyewitness saying how many people were in the body bags. We counted 3 times the bodies acknowledged by the government!”
Dubai’s press still faces a subtle pressure to avoid highlighting the uglier side of life in the city. Journalists here are always afraid of writing something will get them in trouble, so they start ignoring facts because they’re worried about upsetting someone high up, be it in the Information Ministry or a business tycoon.
UAE LAW Article 70:
“No criticism shall be made against the Head of State or Rulers of the Emirates.”
UAE LAW Article 84:
“It is prohibited to malign a public official, or anybody occupying a post in the public prosecution, or assigned to perform a public job. The writer shall not be held responsible if he proves he did so in good faith.”
BANNED BOOKS: One of the most notorious & desirable forbidden reads is Robin Moore’s 1977 blockbuster “Dubai”: “Dubai. The hot spot… Where adventurers play the world’s most dangerous games; Gold, sex, oil… and war.”
Sadly “Dubai” has been out of print for decades. The rumour is that Sheikh Rashid was so appalled by its contents, and the accuracy of its portrayal of the Creek, gold smuggling, tribal politics and so on, that he bought the rights to it to prevent further publication.
After talking to editors & journalists it becomes clear that this view is driven by 2 main factors. 90% of media staff in the UAE are non-local & therefore need a visa to work – many professionals are cowed by the prospect of deportation…
Secondly, journalists walk a tightrope, both culturally & legally, of not really knowing what they can get away with.
Journalists shy away from the region’s bigger stories that are always being ignored.
> Prostitution is happening everywhere, even in Saudi Arabia.
> What about human trafficking of house maids & construction workers?
> What about money laundering?
> And the real estate boom? Who’s buying these villas, sometimes 50 at once?
Also, this is an Islamic country, which has endemic prostitution.
Sensitive things such as religion, prostitution, corruption & anything on the Royal family are not touched by the media.
The fact remains that the UAE is a largely appointed society dominated by tribes and powerful families; perhaps it’s understandable that, in the medium term at least, it’s who you know and not what you have to say which influences the stories making it onto the newsstands.