Just a harmless little gift? Even today, journalists in the UAE accept bribes that are just as corrupting as any brown-paper bag full of money.
The taint of bribes in the media still corrupts coverage
Whether it's a plain brown envelope, direct deposit into a bank account, gifts or just favours, payment for media coverage continues to be an issue for countries all over the world. Particularly in Arab countries, the battle against corruption in journalism is one that is being fought by various organisations and campaigns that have set out to educate the public - and media professionals - about the obligations and responsibilities of journalism.
In the UAE, there was an era of ethical journalism when the press was first introduced into the country. It was the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, the founder of the UAE, who issued a government order to establish in 1969 the first daily newspaper, Al Ittihad, a partner publication of The National. Looking ahead to the establishment of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed saw that the only way forward to develop Emirati society was through the creation of a news outlet and direct lines of communication with the public through the media. Journalists from across the Arab world came to the UAE to become part of one of the most important foundations of the country.
Since Al Ittihad was the main source of news at the time, and with the public's urgent need for information, Arab journalists, mainly from Egypt and Jordan, were held in extremely high regard. Having worked in countries where media professionals were often prosecuted and jailed, journalists found themselves welcomed by the UAE as leading members of society. Being a relatively small community, these journalists also had the advantage of constant direct access to sheikhs and top government officials. These factors all inclined journalists to practise ethical journalism and corruption was almost non-existent.
My father told me one story about how this worked from his days as a reporter in the early 1970s. After interviewing a senior official who had just arrived in the UAE, he was given a booklet that explained more about the organisation that he was visiting. It was only later that he found a wad of cash between the pages of the book. Knowing that this was a common practice in many other Arab countries to ensure positive coverage, and out of respect for the gentleman he had interviewed, my father diplomatically responded to the gesture by purchasing a gift for the official that was slightly more expensive than the amount he had received. To send the message home, he left the receipt in the package, which would normally have been unacceptable in UAE tradition. This was how it was done at the time.
As time moved on, more publications began to open up across the UAE. As the population grew and the country developed, competition between media outlets began to affect the quality of senior publishers that were being recruited. Salaries started to fall and standards fell for the journalists who were being recruited. PR and marketing agencies entered the scene and the media community as a whole lost some of its integrity.
That is reflected in practices that are still going on today. At a recent press conference in Abu Dhabi, journalists were given new iPads for attending. In Dubai, top-of-the-line mobile phones have been given out during media round-table meetings with senior corporate executives. Outrageous per diem accounts are offered on media trips overseas. Although working journalists may not be accepting brown paper bags, some are still accepting gifts worth thousands of dirhams: that threatens the integrity of journalism as a whole across the UAE. Journalists who accept bribes have forgotten their obligations to the public, not to mention to themselves.
Recently I had the privilege of sitting in on a classroom discussion in a journalism class at Zayed University. One student who is already working in the field of public relations told the group that bribing journalists, with either gifts or cash, was still a common practice. Assistant professor Matt Duffy, an advocate of ethical journalism in the UAE, and other colleagues and students at Zayed University have written a code of ethics that includes a commitment to refuse bribes or gifts.
Even though these practices may only apply to a minority of journalists, they still threaten to compromise the entire media sector. Action should be taken to educate not only journalists, but also PR agencies, other companies and public sector organisations about the dangers of seemingly innocuous gifts. Not only does the practice compromise an individual journalist's integrity, but it does a disservice to everyone because of the biased coverage that people will recognise as propaganda.
National campaigns need to encourage zero tolerance for journalists accepting gifts. It falls on media professionals to regulate themselves using venues such as the Journalists Association and the Dubai Press Club. All parties need to recognise that ethics is the foundation of good journalism, especially in this ever-changing media environment.
Taryam Al Subaihi is an Emirati social commentator specialising in corporate communications
Ÿ Editor's note: The National's policy allows journalists to accept inexpensive gifts, which are then put in an auction with proceeds given to charity