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Special Report
Last Updated: 11/03/2005
Arab Media Freedom and 7,000 Dead Chickens
KM Rakesh

Media freedom is virtually non-existent in the Arab World where freedom in the conventional sense is itself a mirage. But media freedom is now worth a story as things are changing, albeit slowly. The snail-paced changes being witnessed in the media scene, especially in the Arabian Gulf states where Sheikhdoms have made sure no free media existed, is interesting to watch. And nothing can be better than a ringside view.

Media freedom, as the democratic world understands, is alien to this part of the world. Every fact needs to be "officialised" with government versions getting precedence. More often than not, it is only the "official" version one gets to see in print. Reportage is strictly limited to profile based write-ups, press conferences in snazzy hotels, or simply PR verbiage glorifying trivia.

A rather funny media system where marketing managers/executives attend press conferences - perhaps as a reassurance to the PR agency that the fluff would go into print while they quid pro quo with advertisements - is a sample of the media culture here.

This is one region where PR agencies are practically worshipped by media personnel, and government department and agencies "thank" beat reporters with expensive gifts or doles for their services.

How else would the act of a construction company giving a meal - just one meal - for workers who toiled to erect a massive structure become a "story"? A PR agency in Dubai actually had the gall to send out a statement and pictures of the company doing the "meal charity."

To camouflage the violations of basic labour rights like payment of wages, proper accommodation and food commonly seen in the construction sector in the United Arab Emirates, such acts of "generosity" need to be highlighted. And pliable media elements that practically eat out of the hands of PR agencies dovetail with the needs.

The Arabian Gulf is also where "awards" for best reporting of an event (usually state-sponsored) essentially means rewarding the reporter who chooses not to rub the organisers the wrong way. And when money means quite a lot in an industry that thrives on underpaid pen-pushers, organizers rub their hands in glee.

While the awards and rewards remain - and are likely to stay for the unforeseeable future - a few ripples of free reporting have been sighted of late. Stories that actually take the authorities head-on, reports that make officials squirm, articles that call a spade a spade - are all being seen.

The boom matters

Skyrocketing oil prices and the wealth it brought in has had certain obvious impact on the development of these countries. To cite an example, the United Arab Emirates - which along with Saudi Arabia is arguably the least media freedom-friendly among the Arabian Gulf states - is riding the wave of an unprecedented economic boom.

With the real estate scene ushering in changes to more than the desert landscape, the nation that comprises seven emirates (akin to states or provinces) ruled by seven different families is in the midst of a never-before rush of foreign businessmen and investors. Things only got better post-9/11 when the cash-rich Arab investors - particularly those from the Gulf States - went around seeking non-Western alternatives in which to dump the petro-dollars that kept piling up as the oil prices shot through the roof. Today, the United Arab Emirates happens to be among the leading beneficiaries of this wealth.

The rapid growth in the real estate sector led to an influx of foreign companies and workers of all varieties. That obviously led to the mini-boom being experienced in the non-Arabic media scene.

The so called "free zones" that sprung up in Dubai - one of the seven emirates of the United Arab Emirates and a city modeled on Singapore - became a haven for every industry and sector including media. Freer among the Arab cities, Dubai saw the opportunity early enough to post the ‘Welcome’ sign at its entry points.

Influx laced with freedom

With increased economic activity and a swelling expatriate population, media was the next sector to benefit from this veritable gold rush. Both startups and established businesses grabbed the opportunity and parked themselves in Dubai - especially the free zone known as Dubai Media City.

The majority of expatriates in the region being Indians, language publications from the South Asian country marched in and started operations. That was immediately followed by the local dailies sprucing up their acts.

Though there were already four English language dailies in the country - three from Dubai and one from another emirate called Sharjah - it was time for more. While the existing dailies from Dubai pumped in money and resources to improve their market share, another one came in the form of a daily morning tabloid - again from Dubai.

All this meant more content - and not just run-of-the-mill PR handouts. When better stories meant more topics exposed under the media scanner, editors started pushing their limits. Critical and often negative stories questioning set patterns began flowing in. Though lollypops compared to stories seen in the free world, they came like a fresh breeze carrying a whiff of media freedom.

7,000 dead chickens

In perhaps the most remarkable development in the Gulf media, a court in the emirate of Sharjah recently ruled in favour of a journalist who reported an incident in which over 7,000 poultry died because local authorities delayed clearing the container they were flown in from another country. The offended authorities sued the reporter and his editor, alleging libel in the story, which appeared in a local Arabic daily in December 1999. Based on evidence and quoting from several acts in the Printing and Publishing Law of 1980, the prosecution then charged the newspaper with a misdemeanor.

However, in a widely applauded decision, the appellate court recently dismissed the case and nullified the fine slapped by the lower court. While the verdict came as the much needed tonic, the Printing and Publishing Law, which includes over 15 articles with "shall not," remains.

The UAE Journalists Association has recently sought changes in the publishing law, since it brackets all cases as "criminal." The association has also sought more freedom and protection for media personnel.

In a region that never tolerates anything against the ruling families, the local administration or system - let alone the Islamic religion or the Arab culture - the court’s ruling in the chicken case came as a relief. Though it might look silly to the free world, we are talking about a system that does not allow news reports to carry names of the accused until sentenced.

The official "statements" that come from the police departments usually carry initials of the individuals involved. Under these circumstances, it must be said that verdicts like this one are just what the Gulf media is looking for.

The freedom index of Reporters Sans Frontiers ranks the Middle East among the worst, along with East Asia. That is a small wonder taking into account the level of freedom media "enjoys" in these parts.

However if someone were to do an intra-Gulf index, the media in Kuwait could be seen as quite free. And the credit for that goes to the rulers who paved way for a legislature and regular elections. Newspapers in the little country once raided by Saddam Hussein are known for carrying hard-hitting speeches from the National Assembly where members speak rather openly.

But an entirely unique example of free media is Qatar - another gas-rich Sheikhdom and base of Al Jazeera TV channel. Soon to launch an English version, Al Jazeera broke all barriers in opening up against the Arab World itself. Although the West might dub it a pro-Islamic propaganda tool, Al Jazeera has ushered in the much needed change in Arab visual media.

Freedom loving media groups in highly restrictive Saudi Arabia went overseas to report frankly on developments in the Arab region. The widely circulated Al Hayat and Al Sharq Al Awsat are typical examples of freedom-hungry Arab media crossing geographical boundaries to join the free media bandwagon by taking pot shots from the free world.

Though the Internet has played a tremendous role is providing exposure to the outside world, the usually state-run ISPs block websites that are not in line with their religious and cultural values.

While it cannot be said Arabs don’t relish freedom, the truth is they are yet to taste true freedom. Wealth has given them comforts, modern education and lots of dreams. To translate these dreams into reality, they are now working their way towards open societies.

Although Dubai is seen as an open society, the yardstick is the one chiseled out in the Arab World. Nowhere near a free media environment, Gulf media - like the rest of Middle East, except perhaps Lebanon - will have to be content with whatever little freedom they can sample for now.

This writer is a journalist based in the United Arab Emirates and is an analyst on South Asian and Middle East affairs. He has worked for several years in New Delhi, India, and has written extensively on related issues. E-mail rakeshkombra@yahoo.com


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