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May 3rd, 2010, by Christopher Davidson

Christopher Davidson

View Dr. Christopher Davidson’s GEF profile here

A month ago the United Arab Emirates’ only credible online discussion forum – www.uaehewar.net – was blocked without explanation.  Worse still, the authorities began hunting down the owner of the website, first claiming technical difficulties, then expressing concern over the site’s contents.  Till now, the site remains blocked.  What caused such a stir?  Since being established in summer 2009 the site offered a genuine opportunity for debate on local issues, including politics, national identity, and management of the economy.  Entirely in Arabic, the posters were regular UAE citizens, many of whom were frustrated by state-controlled or subsidized media, underperforming universities, and an absence of legitimate social and political commentary.

Bizarrely, this took place at the same time that Rupert Murdoch flew to the UAE to announce that News International would be establishing its Middle East headquarters in Abu Dhabi, as part of a massive new media and communications hub in the emirate that will also include a branch of CNN.  And this on the back of campuses of New York University, the Guggenheim, and other leading educational and cultural institutions being built in the emirate that should be similarly pressing for a more liberal media environment.  So what explains the current hydra-headedness of the country when it comes to media and its freedom?

Despite efforts to liberalize its economy, invite foreign investment, and develop cosmopolitan ‘global cities’, the UAE has repeatedly failed to distance itself from the murkiest of censorship practices, and has carefully maintained a grey cloud of ambiguity that continues to obscure freedom of expression.  For years censorship has been an everyday reality for citizens and the millions of expatriates living in the UAE; with books, newspaper output, and Internet access all being heavily restricted.  This, unfortunately, is a necessary evil of the autocratic traditional monarchies that maintain their stranglehold over the nation’s resources and its citizenry, often in pursuit of narrow elite interests, channeling wealth overseas for personal gain or into prestige projects that undermine national development goals.

At the heart of the system is the National Media Council – a remnant of the UAE’s old Ministry of Information and Culture.  The NMC claims it has become more tolerant and now only censors books that offend Islam or are pornographic.  However there is little doubt that it still actively bans a wide range of books, or – more accurately – simply avoids providing the necessary approval to willing distributors.  The US Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor reports on the UAE confirm this view, regularly detailing banned publications in the UAE.  The NMC’s other responsibilities include the blacking out of nudity in media output (still by using black felt tip on newspaper and magazine articles), and the running a department for external information, which keeps a close eye on UAE-related content in foreign publications and seeks to limit the output of certain writers.

The NMC is also responsible for enforcing the UAE’s press law.  Although this legislation is currently being amended, with the NMC no longer able to impose jail terms on offending journalists, very large fines have been introduced as an alternative.  If anything, the new version of the law is more restrictive than before, with fines for journalists who ‘damage the UAE’s reputation’ or ‘harm the economy.’  Thus, the NMC can continue to rely on a national body of journalists who have been weaned on decades of self-censorship: the majority of reporters are expatriates and few are willing to jeopardize their livelihood in the UAE.  This is exacerbated by an atmosphere of ambiguity, with few journalists or editors quite able to establish what is permissible.

Of equal interest is what the NMC fails to censor.  It never prevents anti-semitic cartoons from being published in the domestic newspapers.  The cartoons often depict Israeli leaders being compared to Hitler, and Jews being portrayed as demons.  In January 2009, at the height of the Gaza conflict, the UAE’s bestselling English language newspaper, Gulf News, not only featured such a cartoon (featuring an Israeli solider with a forked red tongue), but also published a full-blown Holocaust denial piece.

In parallel to the NMC’s work, telephone calls are monitored in the UAE and last summer spyware was uploaded onto smartphones so that email could be stored and monitored.  The bulk of households and commercial buildings still have their Internet fed through proxy servers controlled by one of the UAE’s two major providers.  These in turn are supervised by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority.  As per official memoranda, the TRA is only supposed to block websites falling into specific ‘prohibited content categories’ including pornographic and terror-related sites.

But many other websites are either permanently or periodically blocked.  Sites containing information about political prisoners, human trafficking, or other human rights violations that mention the UAE are often blocked. Uaeprison.com, Uaetorture.com, and Arabtimes.com remain permanently blocked, as they regularly depict abuses perpetrated by certain members of the ruling families.  Perhaps least forgivably, personal blogs have also been blocked, and only reopened following international petitions.  Most of the blogs that do remain open tend to be carefully worded and peppered with sycophancy.  Again, a story of self-censorship.

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