DUBAI // An international press freedom group yesterday urged the Government to relax restrictions on the media. Despite ranking the UAE as having one of the most liberal media policies in the region, where journalists do not have to fear prison, Reporters Without Borders said the country still had "red lines" that reporters know they must not cross.
"The UAE has privately owned newspapers and independent journalists, and reporters for foreign organisations are able to work quite freely," said Hajar Smouni, the head of the group's head of Middle East and North Africa desk. "Removing the threat of jail for reporting sends a positive image to the press, but local journalists, many of whom are foreigners who rely on the Government for their residence visas, still have 'red lines' they don't cross."
"There are definite limits in the press, and there are still a number of things that need to be done regarding censorship of the internet - I am not talking about censoring pornography, but there are a number of blogs and so on that are still blocked." A year ago yesterday, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, proclaimed that journalists should no longer face the threat of jail for carrying out their duties, a decision that the Journalists' Association wants to remember by making Sept 25 an annual UAE Press Freedom Day.
Reporters Without Borders placed the UAE 65th out of 169 countries in its 2007 Press Freedom Index, ranking it as having the third freest press in the region behind Israel and Kuwait. A new media law is currently being drafted, and international news organisations are using the country both as a source of news and a base from which to cover the events of the region. Speaking before a majlis on Wednesday to mark the country's inaugural UAE Press Freedom Day, Mohammed Youssef, the head of the UAE Journalists' Association, said that the press was enjoying more freedom than ever before, but it still faced problems.
"[Government officials and businessmen] know they cannot keep everything secret. They do not want to see a rumour on the internet that is only 10 per cent true, and they are learning that if they close their doors and do not give information, that is what they will get. Still it is hard, it is a fight to get the truth. "I think it is not possible to stop a story from appearing just by not giving an answer. If a journalist has a story and knows it is true, there is more freedom to print it now even without a response."
He said public relations firms were still slow to respond to questions, often because the only person authorised to speak was the head of an organisation. However, he predicted that more people would be given the power to speak. Louay al Samarrai, the managing director of Active Public Relations, said standards in the PR industry were improving but said some firms were still "press release factories" that did not fully understand the needs of their clients or journalists.
"With more international companies entering the UAE, it is raising the standards of the PR agencies by default," he said. "If the PR company is not pulling its weight and the international company is used to a slick performance, they will pull the plug and go elsewhere." He said there was still a tendency for some PR firms to try to buy coverage in the press by bribing journalists, rather than properly addressing their need for access to information.
Public attitudes to the media were mixed among people interviewed in Dubai. "I think that the press here practices a huge deal of self-censorship, which is bad for the development and strength of Dubai," said Michael François, a construction manager who moved to Dubai six years ago from France. "Any government needs feedback from the people it governs." However, he felt the western press was "way too invasive... however rich, famous or powerful you are, you have the right to a private life," he said.
"I have no criticism to what the papers are publishing; I think they cover everything well enough," said Rashid al Jazeeri, an Emirati. "I also feel the Government is doing a lot for its people, and therefore no criticism needs to be made. Why talk about religion or the royal family? The news can be covered properly without discussing these topics." Two Britons, David Wheeler and Daniel Burnam, who work in publishing in Dubai, said a degree of censorship was to be expected in this part of the world. "You can't forget that Dubai is still a new market," said Mr Burnam, "so it is only fair to give them a bit of time."
"In comparison to other Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, it is much more liberal here," Mr Wheeler said. * Additional reporting by Eugene Harnan and Nour Samaha