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Expression in the Emirates
20 Feb 2009
BY INDEX ON CENSORSHIP

dubai__united_arabic_emiratesDubai’s censorship extends far beyond book festivals, says Christopher Davidson

The blacklisting of Geraldine Bedell’s latest novel from Dubai’s International Festival of Literature should come as no surprise. It featured a homosexual character and therefore crossed one of the many unspoken literary taboos in the United Arab Emirates, obliging the festival organisers to either self censor or face uncertain consequences. Despite efforts to liberalise its economy, invite foreign investment, and develop cosmopolitan ‘global cities’, the UAE has repeatedly failed to distance itself from some of the murkiest of censorship practices, and a carefully maintained grey cloud of ambiguity continues to obscure freedom of expression. For many years censorship has been an everyday reality for the millions of expatriates living in the UAE; with books, newspaper output, and Internet access all being heavily restricted.

At the heart of the system is the National Media Council — an unfortunate remnant of the UAE’s old Ministry of Information and Culture. The NMC claims that it has become more tolerant and now only censors books that offend Islam or are pornographic. However there is little doubt that it still actively bans a wide range of books, or — more accurately — simply avoids providing the necessary approval to willing distributors. The US Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor reports on the UAE confirm this view, regularly detailing banned publications in the UAE. The NMC’s other responsibilities include the blacking out of nudity in media output (still done by using black felt tip on newspaper and magazine articles), and running a department for external information, which keeps a close eye on UAE-related content in foreign publications and seeks to limit the output of certain writers.

The NMC is also responsible for enforcing the UAE’s press law. Although this legislation has recently been amended, and the NMC can no longer impose jail terms on offending journalists, very large fines have been introduced as an alternative. If anything, the new version of the law is more restrictive than before, with fines for journalists who ‘damage the UAE’s reputation’ or ‘harm the economy’. Thus, the NMC can continue to rely on a national body of journalists who have been weaned on decades of self-censorship: the majority of reporters are expatriates and few are willing to jeopardise their livelihood in the UAE. This is exacerbated by an atmosphere of ambiguity, with few journalists or editors quite able to establish what is permissable. At present, few will risk running stories about redundancies or corruption scandals.

Perhaps of equal interest is what the NMC fails to censor. It never prevents anti-Semitic cartoons from being published in the domestic newspapers. The cartoons often depict Israeli leaders being compared to Hitler, and Jews being portrayed as demons. In January 2009, at the height of the Gaza conflict, the UAE’s bestselling English language newspaper, Gulf News, not only featured such a cartoon (featuring an Israeli solider with a forked red tongue), but also published a Holocaust revisionist piece which claimed ‘…it is evident that the Holocaust was a conspiracy hatched by the Zionists and the Nazis… the Holocaust was a major crime in history and the Israeli culprit is at it again today’.

In parallel to the NMC’s work, it is widely understood that telephone calls are monitored in the UAE and that the bulk of households and commercial buildings still have their Internet fed through proxy servers controlled by one of the UAE’s two major providers. These in turn are supervised by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority. As per official memoranda, the TRA is only supposed to block websites falling into specific ‘prohibited content categories’. These include websites that promote criminal or terrorist activities, social networking websites that may facilitate premarital or homosexual relations, websites relating to narcotics, pornographic websites, and websites with content offensive to religion.

However, a very large number of other websites are either permanently or periodically blocked. Sites containing information about political prisoners, human trafficking, or other human rights abuses that mention the UAE are often blocked. Uaeprison.com and Arabtimes.com remain permanently blocked. The former details abuses of the justice system in the UAE, often involving South Asian expatriates. Inoffensive websites containing information on the Baha’i faith, Judaism, and testimonies of former Muslims who have converted to Christianity are also often blocked. Perhaps least forgivably, personal blogs have also been blocked, and only reopened following international petitions from the blogging community. In summer 2008, it was announced by the TRA that the duopoly would soon unblock thousands of censored websites. Unfortunately these newly accessible sites were simply those whose content owners had made modifications specifically in line with the TRA’s requirements. Again, a story of self-censorship.

Christopher Davidson is the author of Dubai: The Vulnerability of Success
bedell

4 responses to “Expression in the Emirates”

  1. Karl Pfeifer says:

    Does Mr. Ibrahim Al Abed suggest that in Israel there is – except military censorship – censorship of Media?
    If he is implying this, he should bring evidence.

  2. Ibrahim Al Abed says:

    by Ibrahim Al Abed,
    Director General, UAE National Media Council

    Christopher Davidson’s piece, Dubai’s censorship extends far beyond book festivals (20th February 2009) is, I’m afraid, rather misleading about the actual state of affairs in the United Arab Emirates with regards to censorship and self-expression. It is appropriate that I, as Director General of the UAE’s National Media Council, should attempt to correct some of the more egregious errors, particularly since Index on Censorship is, rightly, viewed as an important source of information on the topic.

    He states, first, that “The blacklisting of Geraldine Bedell’s latest novel from Dubai’s International Festival of Literature should come as no surprise.” In fact, the book was not ‘blacklisted.’ The organisers of the Dubai International Festival of Literature, a private initiative, advised the author and her publishers that they had chosen not to agree to a suggestion that the book be launched at the Festival. Since it will not be published until April, it can scarcely be ‘blacklisted’ in advance. Moreover, the decision by the Festival organisers was taken without any reference whatsoever to the relevant Government body, the National Media Council: it was a purely private decision. It is not for the NMC to advise organisers of such events which books they may, or may not, choose to have launched – although we sincerely hope that the Festival organisers will review their decision.
    Dr. Davidson goes on to say that “there is little doubt that it (the NMC) still actively bans a wide range of books, or — more accurately — simply avoids providing the necessary approval to willing distributors.” This is simply not true. The NMC and its forerunner, the Ministry of Information and Culture, have not forbidden distribution of any book in the UAE for over ten years, with the exception of those deemed to be pornographic or offensive to all religions (not just Islam, as Dr. Davidson suggests). It is certainly possible that some distributors may choose not to stock books – and, therefore, not to seek approval for distribution from the NMC – but the Council can scarcely be blamed for decisions taken by distributors about whether or not to stock books of which it is never made aware in the first place.

    The NMC makes no apology for using felt-tip pens to black out nudity in publications – or, rather, for requiring distributors to do so – since such photographs are both offensive to many of the country’s inhabitants, both citizens and expatriates, and are not in keeping with the country’s prevailing mores and ethics, whether religious or otherwise.
    Dr. Davidson goes on to state that another NMC responsibility is: “running a department for external information, which keeps a close eye on UAE-related content in foreign publications and seeks to limit the output of certain writers.”
    I am sure that the information organs of most Governments ‘keep a close eye’ on material related to their countries that appear in the foreign media. Keeping such a watch does not in any way represent censorship – it is simply a matter of information-gathering. The NMC, moreover, does not, and could not, seek “to limit the output of certain writers.” Dr. Davidson is being, deliberately, disingenuous. It would have been more honest of him to admit that the case to which he refers is that of himself. On two occasions, the NMC has written to his publishers, after publication of an academic paper and a book, to point out a long list of easily-verifiable factual errors. Rather than admitting that the errors actually existed, and, perhaps, to consider correcting them in any future editions, Dr. Davidson has chosen to accuse the NMC of seeking to ‘limit’ his output. Indeed, he has been quoted elsewhere as saying that my action in pointing out his mistakes represented “a government official casting aspersions on an academic’s credibility, product and professionalism. That is a serious encroachment on civil society and freedom of speech.”
    This is not, by any standards, ‘censorship’ – since when has it been illegitimate in terms of freedom of speech for anyone, whether a private individual or a government body, to point out factual errors in an author’s work?
    Dr. Davidson goes on to comment on the new UAE press law. He states that “this legislation has recently been amended, and the NMC can no longer impose jail terms on offending journalists.” The NMC, and, prior to its establishment, the Ministry of Information and Culture, was never in a position of being able to impose jail terms on journalists. This was a matter purely for the courts to decide – and, in fact, no journalists were ever jailed under the old media law. He goes on to state: “If anything, the new version of the law is more restrictive than before, with fines for journalists who ‘damage the UAE’s reputation’ or ‘harm the economy’.” He omits to note that such fines, if handed down by the courts, not by the NMC, can only be issued in the event on stories which are unfounded, inaccurate and insufficiently researched. As the Chairman of the National Media Council noted in a recent newspaper article:
    “It has been suggested that the draft law will make it illegal to publish anything that could be interpreted as being potentially damaging to the national economy. This is not the case. What the draft law does state, however, is that the media have a duty to undertake the appropriate efforts to check their facts before running stories, critical or otherwise. It is simply unacceptable that stories based on gossip should be published without proper efforts being made to check them – as would happen in the serious media anywhere in the world.
    If a story about a company or a Government department is being run that puts forward a critical view about its financial status or its performance, it is only fair that a spokesman for the target should be given the opportunity to respond. If they fail to do so, however, then they have no ground for complaint. The objective of this aspect of the draft law is to ensure that due diligence is undertaken and that sources are properly checked.”
    Dr. Davidson further states: “At present, few (journalists) will risk running stories about redundancies or corruption scandals.” I can only assume he does not read the UAE papers very closely: such stories appear on an almost daily basis, as one might expect in the current economic slowdown. No action been taken by Government against the papers that publish them and the journalists that write them – and nor will such action be taken.
    Having accused the NMC of being responsible for censoring, Dr. Davidson then goes on to accuse it of not censoring enough.
    “Perhaps of equal interest is what the NMC fails to censor. It never prevents anti-Semitic cartoons from being published in the domestic newspapers. The cartoons often depict Israeli leaders being compared to Hitler, and Jews being portrayed as demons. In January 2009, at the height of the Gaza conflict, the UAE’s bestselling English language newspaper, Gulf News, not only featured such a cartoon (featuring an Israeli solider [sic] with a forked red tongue), but also published a Holocaust revisionist piece which claimed ‘…it is evident that the Holocaust was a conspiracy hatched by the Zionists and the Nazis… the Holocaust was a major crime in history and the Israeli culprit is at it again today’.”
    So one is damned if one does and damned if one doesn’t. Of course, there is no prior censorship in the UAE, so the National Media Council is not in a position to be able to vet cartoons or editorial material before publication – and nor would it wish to do so. In fact, I understand that the editor of the Gulf News took prompt action following the publication of the Holocaust revisionist piece, and, while its publication could not be reversed, the paper has, I understand, revised the piece on its website. It might, though, have been more balanced of Dr. Davidson had he chosen in his comments to draw comparisons with what is, and is not, published in the Israeli press.
    I hope that the above clarifies and corrects some of the inaccuracies related to the media and censorship in Dr. Davidson’s piece.

    Ibrahim Al Abed,
    Director General, UAE National Media Council

  3. William Shaw says:

    Margaret Atwood now regrets pulling out:

    […]If they did hype up the idea that Bedell’s book was “banned” Penguin – and Bedell – should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. Self-righteously stirring up Islamophobia to sell books – twenty years after the Satanic Verses affair – is not very smart.[…]Arts & Ecology

  4. William Shaw says:

    Margaret Atwood now regrets pulling out:

    […]If they did hype up the idea that Bedell’s book was “banned” Penguin – and Bedell – should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. Self-righteously stirring up Islamophobia to sell books – twenty years after the Satanic Verses affair – is not very smart.[…]Arts & Ecology