DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, (AP) – The ruling sheiks cannot stop the global economic crisis from intruding on their lofty dreams.
They can, however, try to keep it off the front pages.
A draft media law could give authorities wider powers to regulate increasingly gloomy economic reporting after years of basking in coverage of hyper-growth and gliterati just as dazzling and gossip-worthy as Hollywood’s.
The final version of the proposed rules still requires presidential approval, but journalist groups have made pre-emptive strikes — accusing officials of trying to muzzle the press and force news outlets to become part of the country’s image-building machine.
Government officials insist the draft law is in “no way a response” to the economic turmoil and work on it began during the boom times two years ago.
“It’s merely a coincidence that the legislation has reached the stage of review … when our economy, like that of every country, is facing complex problems,” said Ibrahim al-Abed, the director of the National Media Council. He said the proposed law will not affect the foreign media.
But that hasn’t quieted the concerns of journalists and press rights watchers. In their view, it’s another glimpse into the friction when the Emirates’ experiments in Western-style openness — led by cosmopolitan Dubai — butts against the Gulf traditions in which high-level decisions are rarely questioned.
“Dubai has an economic threat going on,” said Timothy Walters, head of the journalism and mass communications department at the American University of Sharjah. “When a society feels threatened, people who manage it try to regulate the media because they know media has the power to change.”
Nearly all Mideast countries pose challenges for local coverage of sensitive topics such as the rulers’ private lives or political dissent.
For years, the Emirates crafted an image of a place where bad news was left at the door. It was an easy illusion to sustain.
Money was flowing like nowhere else. Each new building seemed more indulgent than the last.
But as the downturn hit, the stories shifted to gloomy updates about canceled projects and layoffs. Officials were put in the unaccustomed role of denying reports that Dubai’s population was shrinking as jobless foreigners left town.
The new draft media law, passed by national lawmakers in January, can impose fines up to about $136,000 for “carrying misleading news that harms the national economy” and for “deliberately publishing false news.”
It also includes fines of about $272,000 for “insulting” members of the ruling elite.
“The new law has no reference to imprisonment,” al-Abed explained. He said it also protects reporters against revealing their sources and obligates ministries to disclose information.
It is not known when — or if — the law will be approved by the UAE’s president, Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
Earlier this year, a Paris-based media watchdog expressed “increased concern” about press freedom in the UAE. In a letter to Khalifa, Reporters Without Borders asked authorities to “reduce the size of the fines and to restrict the powers of both the National Media Council and the courts to punish the media.”
The proposed law has already sent a chill through some local media, which have typically avoided stories that could anger ruling officials. But they now face a newsroom dilemma. The economic troubles are often the main story in the Emirates.
“We reject this law,” said Mohammed Yousef, the director of the UAE Journalists Association. “It has more restrictions than it is necessary.”
Yousef said journalists were puzzled by the vague wording of offenses such as “false news” and misleading information on the economy.
“You could interpret every news item as misleading … particularly since the economic indicators are unpredictable,” Yousef said.
But some Emirati journalists favor the law, saying it protects their industry.
“It’s not to stop bad news,” said Abdullatif al-Sayegh, who heads the Arab Media Group, a Dubai-based media conglomerate. It is, however, to prevent journalists “digging for bad news,” he said.
“The law is to protect the media community and only those who don’t have the ABCs of the business are worried,” said al-Sayegh, whose group includes eight radio stations, three daily newspapers and three TV channels.
This didn’t seem to concern Emirates’ leaders when the world’s media was churning out lighter pieces about A-list celebrities or gawking at the world’s tallest skyscraper or a ski slope inside a shopping mall.
The vague language of the law carries a significant risk of increased self-censorship, experts say.
“There’s a chilling effect of the law,” Walters said. “Journalism has generally been favorable to boosting local economy … Reporters are unsure of what the rules are, so they don’t report it.”
Yousef said the law “outlines punishments and bans,” but doesn’t give a clear picture of “what’s allowed, and what is not.”
A front-page commentary last week in the Sharjah-based Al Khaleej newspaper — owned by an influential family with close ties to the rulers — complained about the “tone of exaggeration and panic” in the international and Arab media coverage of the Emirates’ economic stumbles.
“It is derived either from ignorance … or it suggests the existence of a malicious campaign whose masterminds are trying to make use of the current situation to undermine” the country, the paper said.