Friday, September 22, 2006

Freedom of the Press

I have to admit to a certain morbid fascination with the subject of press freedom, especially in the UAE. We've seen a lot of stories about it recently. There's a debate about it in today's Gulf News between Arabic-speaking editors and media people.

It seems that this debate was sparked by some readers' letters that appeared on 7Days' website some months ago. Apparently they have been pulled, and nobody is telling what they said. Whatever it was, it really annoyed a lot of locals. And I have to admit that 7Days went through a phase when it really annoyed me - the letters page(s) contained no-holds-barred, uncivilised brawls. What had been a refreshingly frank editorial policy when the paper first started breathed life into the big papers (GN & KT) for a while. And as a long-time expat I was astonished that 7Days could publish these things without being deported.

But is press freedom good for the country? Ultimately it has to be, because it is only by talking about things that the Government would prefer to keep quiet that solutions can be found to those problems. Issues that spring to mind are child camel jockeys, mistreatment of labourers and domestic helpers etc. By reporting on these issues, the press does a great service to the country: if you don't know something is broken, how can you fix it?

The issues that I mentioned above have existed for as long as I've lived here, and nothing much was done. I was ok with that, because I am a 'guest' here, and if that is how things are then who am I to say otherwise? (Answer: just another know-it-all whingeing expat, if you don't like it feel free to go back to your own country). It is only now that the eyes of the world's press frequently fall upon Dubai that we are seeing some changes made. Dubai desperately, desperately, needs to be seen as a squeaky-clean paradise where foreigners can safely invest their money. Believe it or not, there are lots of people who will not be investing here because of the perceived lack of social justice.

But some participants in the debate seem to think otherwise. Exposing these issues causes embarrassment and loss of face. Therefore the Press should be controlled. And if people start using the Internet to get their news, well, Etisalat knows how to block websites, doesn't it?

And what about the abuse of 'control'? Just yesterday there was the bizarre case of a famous Turkish novelist being prosecuted for 'insulting Turkishness'. The case was thrown out for lack of evidence, but the mere existence of that stupid law in Turkey means
a) that anyone who publishes anything is a potential criminal
b) Turkey will never be allowed to join the EU.

There is an urgent need for the UAE to revise its archaic Press and Publications Law. As the country totters towards its first tentative experiment in democracy, it should be remembered that you cannot have a true democracy if it is illegal to criticise the Government.