Dubai’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