x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Marker pens applied so that blushes are spared

Wielding black markers, a team of censors wakes up early every day to black out images deemed unfit for public eyes.

John Matthews censors magazines by crossing out nudity in a warehouse near the port.
John Matthews censors magazines by crossing out nudity in a warehouse near the port.

ABU DHABI // Every day before the sun rises, the city's print censors are hard at work making sure that morally sensitive editions of the morning papers can reach the shops by 9.30am. The 13 members of the "black-marker brigade" at the Jashanmal National Company scan bundles of imported newspapers and magazines, inking over photographs deemed too provocative for the public's eyes. On a recent Sunday, Antobono Vaz, the Abu Dhabi-based manager of newspapers for Jashanmal, found his first piece of offensive content in an Italian glossy magazine: a model in a see-through blouse. "It's obvious we have to cover it," Mr Vaz said.

"The guidelines are only such that if there is a nude picture, we cover it with a black marker. It's as simple as that." Jashanmal supplies the capital with most of its western newspapers and magazines. Its Abu Dhabi warehouse ships about 1,500 publications, ranging from Kitchen and Bath to Classic Boat Magazine. Most were imported from countries including the UK, the US, France, Italy and India, said Mr Vaz, who has worked for the retail supplier for 28 years. Between 150 and 200 publications may come on a given day, though the number of copies varies from 50 to 300 depending on the title.

"We are quite experienced, so we know which ones to watch for," Mr Vaz said. "We watch for The Sun, the Mirror or People. Mostly, we have to cover The Sun because of their Page 3 model." John Matthews, one of the censors, said he might scan through 700 to 800 copies a shift. "The nude breast photos cannot be sent to the market. The Government makes this rule," Mr Matthews said, while marking up an issue of Vogue.

Some rulings are less obvious. The New Yorker and The Economist magazines have put the black-marker brigade on guard before as did the July issue of Practical Photography, which a reader scrutinised at the warehouse last month. The trade magazine, which publishes camera reviews and shooting tips, was flagged for a supplement on snapping abstract nudes, Mr Vaz said. But he said identifying inappropriate pages for marking has become more straightforward in recent years.

"We do not censor words at all," Mr Vaz said. "The higher authorities here don't censor anything because of political content." That was not always the case. Censorship guidelines have relaxed considerably in recent decades. But he said articles that might distress national values or religion still drew the censors' attention. Mr Vaz said the coverage of the British expatriates arrested for indecent behaviour on a Dubai beach would have been censored 15 to 20 years ago.

By 4am each day, the Jashanmal distributors have begun hauling heaps of newspapers and magazines from Abu Dhabi International Airport to the sorting station at Madinat Zayed, dropping off new issues at the National Media Council's doorstep. NMC officers scan the material and mark down problem pages, Mr Vaz said. The Government then signs a censorship certificate listing pages that need the black-marker treatment. The log usually runs three to five pages.

"They will call us because they have to finish the papers by 8 or 8.30 and then we personally go there and collect the certificate," Mr Vaz said. "Once they say OK, the boys will read and do the packing." An official at the censorship department noted that guidelines here are less severe than elsewhere in the region. "We still have large faith in freedom of expression and every case has its own consideration, so you cannot generalise," he said. "If something is against the national interests of the country, national feelings, against Islam, for example, that is not allowed.

"We respect the feelings of our people, so of course we are not going to protect the interests of a distributor over the national interests of people." mkwong@thenational.ae