The federation is a leading moderniser in the region and foreign and local media enjoy a degree of freedom, but strong social and political controls encourage self-censorship.
The UAE has one of the world’s highest per capita incomes but free elections are not in sight due to the great reluctance of its leaders and lack of demand for them from the population. Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the federation’s leading members, allow a measure of freedom and have so far been spared any acts of terrorism. The satellite station Abu Dhabi TV, though government-run, reports the international news professionally and with a fair amount of editorial independence, which is appreciated by Arab viewers around the world. It sent a big team of journalists to cover the war in Iraq.
The annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), held in Dubai in September 2003 (the first time in an Arab country), was the emirate’s event of the year and was marked by an announcement by crown prince and defence minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktum of plans for a new international financial centre and tax-free zone rivalling Beirut, halfway between Hongkong and London.
Dubai already has several business centres, such as Internet City and Media City, which opened in January 2001 and houses 700 newspaper, radio and TV operations that enjoy a range of advantages, especially tax benefits. The war in Iraq attracted new media, such as CNN, Reuters and Agence France-Presse and the two news agencies made it their regional centre. The Saudi-funded satellite TV station Al-Arabiya, the main rival of the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera, also set up in Media City.
Information minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan opened the Arab Media Summit in October by criticising participants for the lack of distance and objectivity in their reporting. He said they had failed to expose the real nature of the Iraqi regime before the war and had described the war itself in simplistic terms of Western powers versus an Arab regime ready to confront these powers in the name of Arab honour and sovereignty. He said the region had to accept that its societies and governments were flawed and made mistakes.
The authorities presented the hundreds of news organisations at Media City with a code of conduct in November and asked them to keep to it. Media City chief legal officer Gerard Hobby said the code, based on the one drafted by Britain’s Broadcasting Standards Commission, was an experiment and a first in the Gulf. It required media to be impartial and respect people’s privacy and said it contained no prohibitions because that would go against press freedom, which it said was the cornerstone of Media City.
However media were asked to take into account social and religious factors in the UAE, the Middle East and other Muslim countries. The code came with an independent body of seven lawyers to see that it was respected.
Despite the genuine tolerance of the Dubai authorities, speculation and discussion about the emirate’s strongman and crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed, is taboo. Many journalists are foreigners and need a work permit, so they censor themselves about internal Dubai matters, relations with neighbouring countries (especially Saudi Arabia) and their ruling families and also religious matters.
A journalist arrested
A journalist, who preferred not to give his name or say who he worked for, was arrested in June 2003 as he left a press conference given by the sacked crown prince of the emirate of Ras al-Khaima, who had been replaced by his brother. He was freed several hours later but his film was confiscated.