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It’s a regional trend
The Doha Centre slams the region for its lack of media freedom in a report titled Media Freedom in the Middle East and North Africa; the report couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.
February 10, 2009 12:45 by Dana El Baltaji
“Media freedom is nowhere on the agenda in the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf,” begins a report published by the Doha Centre for Media Freedom in Qatar, titled Media Freedom in the Middle East and North Africa. “The region remains generally opposed to the free flow of news despite some easing of press laws and a few signs of opening up and greater tolerance.”
“The region’s governments shelve their ideological differences to agree that freedom of expression is dangerous and media outlets that defend it are potential threats,” the report said.
The report gives a short analysis of each country in the region, highlighting the immediate concerns of journalists in particular nations.
According to the report, journalists in the UAE practice self-censorship:
“Despite the opening-up, journalists working in the UAE, most of them foreigners with work permits, are very cautious about reporting some topics, especially anything to do with the person of the president, the ruling families, relations with other Gulf states (especially Saudi Arabia,), human rights and the plight of local immigrant workers. The Arabic-language media censors itself more than English-language outlets because it is more likely to report on the region’s internal politics.”
The report comes only weeks after controversy regarding the UAE’s new media law divided law makers and journalists. The UAE’s new media law protects journalists from being imprisoned for ‘crossing the line’, but allows the government to impose fines up to AED1 million for criticizing members of the ruling family.
Many journalists have panned the law, calling it ‘backward‘, while public figures have defended it.
Najla Al Awadhi, a member of the Federal National Council, deputy CEO of Dubai Media Incorporated and general manager of Dubai One TV, wrote an opinion piece for Gulf News defending the new law and asking the media to look at the new regulations objectively.
She wrote: “I honestly believe that a lot of the statements I heard from the media and academic circles, are truly sincere and driven by a deep interest in pushing forward the evolution of freedom and media in our society.
But I also believe that a lot of the statements are powered by emotional assessments of the new law, which does not allow one to grasp the underlying principles that triggered the shaping of this new media legislation; principles which derive from a view of the bigger picture of the balance that must exist between freedom and the social order.”
It is precisely this “balance that must exist between freedom and social order” that continues to baffle journalists: as far as most journalists are concerned, the media’s purpose is inform the public of news – all news – without filtering stories that may upset the UAE’s social order.
According to Doha Centre’s report, this view is not supported by the government’s laws which, due to their vagueness, force journalists to practice self-censorship.
However, the launch of the Ethical Journalism Initiative (EJI) – a collaboration between the UAE Journalists Association and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) – may help identify, and clarify the laws’ vagueness, and provide a framework within which journalists can operate, reports Khaleej Times. According to the report, the initiative will help seek solutions to the problems the region’s media face.
The EJI may also help journalists understand fully what the government deems to be acceptable journalist practices, without having to learn from trial and error.