Emirates Press Law and the Media Blackout
Posted by 7starsdubai on April 9, 2011
source arbabMediasociety October 2009
On May 29, the London-based daily The Independent published an article entitled Dubai property scandal claim emerges amid media blackout. According to the report, a group of investors who had bought properties in buildings by Al Fajer Group, a company run by Sheikh Maktoum Hasher Maktoum , held a press conference to accuse the developer of fraud, according to The Independent.
The investors allege that the developer Al Fajer Properties showed them photographs of buildings it claimed were Ebony 1, Ivory 1 and Ivory 2, but were in fact buildings belonging to another developer.
Unfortunately, the investors didn’t get the sort of press they had hoped for.
Incidentally, Sheikh Maktoum bin Hasher Al Maktoum is the brother-in-law to the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, and soon after the press conference finished, Dubai government officials warned news agencies against publishing articles on the press conference.
“I had written half of the article when I was told by my editor to stop,” a Dubai-based reporter told The Independent. “The investor’s group has records of payment, and it’s obvious that they have been shafted, but we can’t write about it.”
Because a member of the royal family is directly involved.
To date, we have not received updates from Al Fajer Group regarding the allegations made against the company.
Rather than view Sheikh Maktoum bin Hasher Al Maktoum as a businessman who may have been involved in conning investors out of GBP86 million, the government views him as a royal first, a businessman second.
And herein lies one of the media law’s biggest problems: most UAE royals hold government offices and executive positions in companies throughout the Emirates. In fact, most UAE-based companies have some connection, either directly or remotely, to members of the royal family.
How, then, can the media ever hold these individuals accountable for their actions, if stories (albeit negative ones) cannot be published if they involve a royal?
Sadly, the draft media law won’t help with this conundrum, and it certainly won’t help with future torture tape cases either. Article 32, which makes criticizing government officials and royals illegal, is artfully ambiguous. According to HWR’s report, “[such] a vague law invites self-serving interpretation by the government, and with courts that have proven compliant in harshly regulating speech, the result will be continued anxiety, self- censorship, and arbitrary enforcement of the law in the UAE. It appears designed to insulate the government from public accountability and criticism and would deter investigative journalism and undermine the media’s role as public watchdog.”
According to Samer Muscati, the HWR is putting together a new report, because “the situation is more dire than we anticipated.”
It is dire, especially given that in spite of local restrictions on content, the world press can write and say what they want about the UAE, without ever succumbing to the country’s media laws. And the stories the government doesn’t want the local media to publicize, are being publicized anyway by journalists around the world.
Due to the Internet, the only way to prevent the press from airing your dirty laundry in public is by not having any dirty laundry in the first place.
Interestingly, the draft law is still pending approval. One has to wonder why a country that passes laws so quickly compared to other nations has taken its time with this one.
“I’m hoping that the reason why they haven’t signed the law is because they’re going to amend it,” said Muscati. “They need to reevaluate the law and take the recommendations that we’ve given them.”
It is unclear why the draft law hasn’t been passed. Repeated efforts to contact the NMC for an explanation yielded little more than assurances that the government is working on finalizing the law.
However, transparency was never one of the UAE’s strong points, which is ironic given its desire to maintain its status as a regional business hub. Without transparency, and without press freedom to report on political, business-related and social issues, the UAE is unlikely to repair its mired reputation.
Since the financial crisis hit the region in September 2008, bringing the nation’s billion dollar real estate industry to its wobbly knees, the UAE’s credibility as a stable and profitable developing nation was compromised. Dubai, more so than Abu Dhabi, had over stretched its budget. To date, no one knows how much debt the emirate raked up, but occasional disclosures hint at a distressed economy. Earlier this year, Dubai admitted to owing $80 billion, although analysts suspect the number is higher. Clearly, without the government providing accurate numbers, speculators will assume the worst.
Given Dubai’s drive to raise itself from the economic bog it created running up to the financial crisis, honesty and transparency are tantamount. And without the media’s involvement in reporting information about Dubai and the UAE’s news, any effort to regain investor confidence is slim.
In fact, keeping close tabs on the media, like it does with its companies, will only prove that in spite of the lessons the financial crisis has taught the business world, the UAE hasn’t grasped them yet.
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