Royal horses stomp newspaper in the UAE

The Emirati media is a family-ruled domain par excellence, working to uphold the image of purity, modernity, and moderation of the civil state and its values – well a few of these values at least. Anyone who challenges this image will be punished, but is there anyone who will object?
UAE Emirates today blank homepage
Al-Emarat al-Youm's website has been down since Monday after a court ruled to suspend the website.

BEIRUT, July 9, 2009 (MENASSAT) -The United Arab Emirates supreme court’s decision to suspend the publication of newspaper “Al-Emarat al-Youm” for twenty days, came into effect on Monday. The newspaper was sanctioned after publishing an investigative report in October 2006 accusing the “Warsan Stables” owned by the Royal Family in Abu Dhabi, the Al-Nahyans, of using steroids in their international horse-racing competitions.

It has been four days now that the newspaper has not been published and its website is showing a blank page. Communication with the newspaper is no longer possible, and sections affiliated, but not necessary part of the paper, have also disappeared. 

On July 1, the UAE Supreme Court issued a decision to suspend the publication of both the print and electronic versions of Al-Emarat al-Youm for twenty days.

Owners of the newspaper, the Arab Media Group (AMG), issued a statement that it would suspend the publication of the newspaper “temporarily” for twenty days, assuring “its compliance to the laws and regulations of the United Arab Emirates and its complete respect to the court decision.”

What’s notable in this case is the Supreme Court’s use of “suspension” instead of it's earlier decision of "closure" which would have required shutting down the offices of the newspaper. This can be seen as a compromise, in return for the cooperation by the newspaper’s staff to comply with the suspension.

The Prosecuting Attorney, Ammar al-Khaja, said that the latest decision came against a previous ruling to close the newspaper, and the word “closure” was substituted with “suspension.” He explained the term “closure” from a legal point of view, which means “sealing the institution,” while the term “suspension,” means “stopping all publications related to the newspaper.”

A step backwards towards self-censorship

Al-Emarat al-Youm is owned by AMG, a member of Dubai Holdings, which in turn is owned by Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashed al-Maktoum, vice president and Prime Minister of the UAE as well as the Ruler of Dubai.

In respect to freedom of expression and press, the stance taken by the administration, the editorial management, and of course the owners, was actually contrary to what is usually expected of media workers, to say the least. Not once did we hear anyone of these parties denounce the court’s decision or give mention to its effects on freedom of speech and the media in Dubai – claiming to be the media hub in the Gulf and beyond.

In most cases, a media outlet’s management will counter such decisions by protesting against the suppression of the media freedom’s being violated. Instead, the Al-Emarat al-Youm team responded with “compliance to the laws and regulations of the UAE.”

According to Human Rights Watch this is a step backwards for the achievement of press freedoms in the UAE.

“ It can only further intimidate news organizations that investigate and criticize the government, and will deepen the already pervasive culture of self-censorship,” HRW stated.

In a report published in April 2009, the organization spoke of the media law adopted in 1980.

“It has instilled fear of punishment for speaking against the government's position on political, moral and economic concerns, and has pushed UAE journalists and other media organizations into a protracted period of self-censorship and anxiety.”

"Even if the article was not accurate, shutting down the newspaper for three weeks is totally disproportionate and a serious attack on press freedom," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Sources close to the newspaper told CNN Arabic there were negotiations involving Al-Emarat-Al-Youm to stop the initial ruling from being executed. The editorial management of the newspaper, however, refused to comment.

According to the ruling, the newspaper will be suspended, but will be saved from having its headquarters closed and from a 20,000 dirham (US$5,445) fine that would have been issued against editor-in-chief, Sami al-Riyami. Al-Riyami, expected to have stood up against the decision, even if simply making a public statement to protest the decision, remained silent.

Cooperating with the courts

Since it’s launch on September 19, 2005, Al-Emarat Al-Youm has focused on local issues of concern to Arab readers in the UAE. The paper has often been accused of practicing tabloid journalism for exposing many issues that are taboo for Emiratis. Many media observers and readers see the paper as a bold voice for Emirates, as it is one of the few publications run by locals, rather than foreigners.

In an interview with Turki al-Dakhil in 2006 on al-Arabiya channel, al-Riyami was asked about his newspaper, and how it challenges social traditions in the region, publishing stories that present negative aspects of the ultra-conservative society.

He replied, “The media should be a mirror of society and should show its flaws. We are not a city of angels, we have positive as well as negative aspects.”

Perhaps it is this idea, “We are not a city of angels,” that the Emirati rulers don’t agree with. 

And it seems that al-Riyami’s decision to not comment on the matter was the unspoken order of the day. It is not a secret that his approach caused confusion, as it is expected that a victim of censorship protest any attempt to muzzle freedom of speech by any government as loudly and as consistently as possible. 

Now the question that remains is: how can we show our support, for example, to a newspaper that has been suspended when its editor-in-chief himself refuses to criticize this decision or even comment on it?

Also, why is the newspaper cooperating with the court’s decision? Isn’t it the duty of the free media to fight the repression of freedom of speech until its last breath? Isn’t the battle of freedom a continuous and permanent battle, and doesn’t surrendering to the rulers only encourage them to carry out more repression and abuses?

Odd? Not in the UAE.

Al-Emarat-al-Youm is owned by Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashed al-Maktoum. The paper has angered the ruling family in Abu Dhabi, which, with its solid oil revenues is crucial to the economic and strategic security of the UAE in general, while the not-so-booming Dubai takes the backseat.

In other words, Dubai and its investments are in jeopardy with the current financial crisis and the country is only protected because of the oil in Abu Dhabi.

In the past, Al-Riyami faced criticism by the authorities when Al-Emarat-Al-Youm published a report doubting that the infamous Emaar Construction Company would complete some of its colossal projects.

However, he later published an explanation from the Chairman of Emaar, who apparently “believes in the role of the media as a critic” and the episode ended with Al-Ritamyi praising the chairman.

Modernity minus freedoms

The division between state and economy in Dubai is slim, which means that decision-making falls under the complete authority of al-Maktoums in Dubai. However, the UAE is not only Dubai. Despite the infinite ambitions of the Maktoums, the federal authority is located in Abu Dhabi and its oil reserve owners and leaders are the Nahyans.

The possibility of a feud between the al-Maktoums and the al-Nahyans is out of the question, especially over a newspaper. When reading looking at the incident with Al-Emarat Al-Youm, we shouldn’t ignore this balance of power in the Emirates.

But the time to criticize the Royal horses has yet to come yet.

It should be mentioned that a new law was approved by the National Media Council in the UAE, which was supposed to regulate the profession but was faced with harsh criticism, described as “unclear and vague.”

Mohammad Yusuf, head of the Journalists’ Association in the UAE said, “It doesn’t reflect any of our demands, nor any of the transparency required. 90% of our demands were ignored. The law is harmful to the nation, and we should all be afraid of it.”

In the previously mentioned report by the Human Rights Watch, the organization said, “In ambiguous, overbroad provisions, the pending law prohibits communication that misleads the public and "harms the national economy," or "disparages" government officials.  This insulation of public officials from criticism violates the fundamental principle in international human rights law that press freedoms should be wider, not narrower, with respect to politicians and government officials.” 

Finally, it is important to note all of MENASSAT’s attempts to get in contact with AMG and its affiliated “Awraq Publications” or with Mr. al-Riyami, to comment on the ruling, were unsuccessful. Maybe it would be more helpful for any person with information to contact “Warsan” Stables.

No one wants to speak about the dark side of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and of their rulers, especially when it comes to human rights, freedom of expression and equality. The highest tower, the fastest camel, the biggest mall, the most expensive hotel and the latest HDV are apparently enough to enter the era of globalization and engage in modernity.

Has anyone mentioned freedom of speech and human rights?

Spare the people, and leave the ruling horses - the horses of the ruling family - alone. Not every galloping creature is a horse.