Writer and editor

The UAE Five are free, but is the media?

Added on by Anealla Safdar.

On November 28, four Emiratis and one stateless resident of the United Arab Emirates were jailed for threatening state security by insulting the country's leaders. They had called for a boycott of September's Federal National Council elections and were charged in connection with anti-government demonstrations.

On November 29, they were freed by a Presidential pardon.

Ahmed Mansour Ali Abdullah Al Abd Al Shehi, Nasser Ahmed Khalfan bin Gaith, Fahad Salim Mohammed Salim Dalk, Hassan Ali Al Khamis and Ahmed Abdul Khaleq were the defendents.

Al Shehi had been sentenced to three years in prison; the rest were given two years.

The Doha Centre for Media Freedom speaks to Dr Matt Duffy about how the press handled this story, and whether it had an effect on the decision to release the UAE Five, as they became known. He is an assistant professor in the college of communication and media sciences at Zayed University, an institution sponsored by the Emirati government.

Do you think the Presidential pardon had anything to do with the coverage this story received in the media?

The Presidential pardon was widely expected and it is certainly a relief. It’s good to have this issue behind us. The international press had a lot more to do with it. I don’t think the effect of international press reporting on the case should be underestimated.

The trial had gone on for months and there were reports that the five had been treated badly. Do you think the UAE media did a good job of covering their detention?

No, not at all. The English language press has done better job than the Arabic press though, from what I can tell. But I think there has been very little coverage of the arrest, the reasons for arrest and the controversy surrounding their arrest. The Gulf News and The National has covered the trial and offered the barest of facts about the case. They haven’t covered any of the outside condemnations of the trial from human rights organisations. They haven’t covered the allegations the activists’ family made about how they have been treated in prison.

There were people who supported the government’s decision to detain them and were seen outside court showing their support. Was this covered in the local media?

Yes. Only the public demonstrations reported have been the supporters of the government. On November 27, the international press reported that one such supporter became violent and hit a family member of one of the arrested. Those details were not included in local media.

How has international coverage differed from local reporting?

It’s tremendously different. In the second paragraph, reports in the international press would point out that the arrest was in response to a call for refroms at a time when the Arab spring was raging around the region, That type of context is never stated in the Emirati news media. There were also criticisms of trial reported, in terms of how they have been treated, and comments on the fact that there are people that have been making villains of these five people on social media. The Gulf News did publish a courageous article by Sultan Al Qassemi, saying we need not become McCarthys here and start labelling people who disagree with something as traitors. But by and far, the bigger context has been ignored.

You mentioned there’s a disparity between the English and Arabic media in the UAE. What have you noticed in the covering of this story?

The English press is definitely doing a better job of informing the public. I analysed the comparison between The National, which is an English daily, and Al Ittihad, an Arabic daily. If you are only getting your news from Arabic sources, you have a gross misrepresentation about what is going on in this country. You would have no idea that there is any greater thing going on here. So much of their news is nothing but ‘here is what the government has told us and we are passing it on’.

There is no concept of a press which questions, verifies information and tries to accurately convey information. The Arabic language media is not interested in community input and is focused on leadership, experts and journalists with an opinion. This really can’t be understated. When this is your media, it really changes opinions. People are dramatically influenced by the media. On November 29, for example, Al Ittihad ran a four-paragraph statement from the government news agency about the fact the activists had been jailed. There was very little information about the case.

Perhaps reporters in the Emirates are worried that reporting certain parts of the case might land them in trouble. Are there any clear lines that can’t be stepped over?

I hasten to add that despite my complaints, compared to rest of Arab world, the press here is quite robust relatively speaking. But since the arrests, the press has become more timid. Nobody is sure where the lines are, this is something everybody struggles with. To an extent, the effect on that is that people tend to stay quiet. You see this in the reporting and other avenues as well. There are no clear media laws. The system is following the 1980 press and publications act, that is the rule of the land. But there are other events and precedents since 1980, there are more expansions for the press. There is a National Media Council which keeps an eye on things, that is a guidance to the press. That’s how things are done; self-censorship, mixed with subtle regulatory oversight. There are people that are doing good work, I don’t mean to disparage them all, they do good critical journalism. But when people don’t know where the lines are drawn, they tend to err on the side on the caution.

What are the dangers of reporting?

I am one who believes that everybody is self-censoring too much. I think that there is a lot of toleration for viewpoints. I’m quite vocal and I’m still here. Of course there are certain things that wouldn’t be tolerated. It is said frequently that reporters are worried about losing visas if they are too critical. I can’t find one example where this has happened.

Published on the Doha Centre for Media Freedom website on 29th November, 2011