In the autocratic city-states that comprise the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), local media face both the promise of new technology and the burdens of long-standing state restrictions.
The country boasts a number of private newspapers that offer decent coverage of regional and business news. However, reporting on domestic matters is decidedly tame, and journalists steer clear of any news that might irritate local authorities. The 1980 Press Law prohibits, among other things, any speech that “criticizes the head of state or leaders of the Emirates,” “harms Islam or the regime,” “threatens the supreme national interests,” or “shames leaders of friendly Arab or Islamic states.” Offenders can be fined, imprisoned, or have their newspapers suspended.
The government also licenses publications, authorizes the establishment of private printing presses, and monitors both local and foreign publications, which are subject to confiscation if they contain objectionable moral or political content. Journalists say that officials give newspapers and television stations guidelines on how to cover certain news stories, while editors and reporters often receive admonishing phone calls from officials. In past years, CPJ has received reports that United Arab Emirate journalists have been barred from writing or detained by authorities in response to their published criticisms.
Despite these restrictions, local media have flourished in recent years, due in large part to substantial government expenditures on services and infrastructure. The emirate of Dubai, already the region’s leading commercial hub, has aggressively positioned itself as a media center to attract more investment.
In January 2001, the first phase of the much-hyped Dubai Media City–a 200 hectare (500 acre) plot of sparkling media offices, state-of-the-art production facilities, restaurants, and handsome apartments for media professionals–was completed. With incentives such as lower operating costs compared to Europe and full ownership for noncitizens,
the media city has already succeeded in luring several prominent regional and international media organizations. In April, the Saudi-owned Middle East Broadcasting Centre officially opened its offices there after relocating from London. Other companies now operating from the media city include CNN Arabic, Reuters, and the leading Saudi-owned daily Al Sharq al-Awsat.
The government has vowed to respect freedom of expression for those operating in the media city. According to its own promotional literature, the media city is working with the government on draft regulations “guaranteeing freedom of expression within the dimensions of responsibility and accuracy.” It remains unclear, however, how this will translate into practice.
Government authorities own or finance nearly all domestic broadcast media. One bright spot in the U.A.E. media landscape has been the meteoric rise of the semiofficial Abu Dhabi TV, which was relaunched in 2000 as a regional channel following a multimillion-dollar makeover. The channel’s news coverage, especially of the Palestinian intifada, has rivaled that of the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite channel. But while some viewers seem to prefer Abu Dhabi TV’s less sensational political talk shows, most observers agree that the channel does not enjoy the same editorial freedom as Al-Jazeera when it comes to political news and debate.
Satellite dishes are widespread in the U.A.E., allowing access to international and Pan-Arab news channels. The Internet is also increasingly prevalent, with the U.A.E. ranking among the highest per capita users in the Arab world. Authorities in Dubai have attempted to establish the emirate as a leading Internet hub following the 2000 launch
of an Internet City, designed as a base for companies looking to tap into emerging telecommunications markets in the region, and the start in 2001 of a program making certain government services available online. The U.A.E. government, which is the
country’s main Internet service provider, employs Web-filtering technology to block
sexually explicit content and some political sites.