Al Roeya censorship goes global with CNN deal
“There is no freedom of the press in the UAE,” says Radha Stirling, CEO of Detained in Dubai, “But every journalist entering the industry there knows that. Whether we are talking about print media or television, every news outlet in the Emirates is essentially a propaganda operation dedicated to curating a positive image of the UAE and applauding the government. It is not a mystery why the salaries for journalists and editors in Dubai and Abu Dhabi have more in common with Western PR professionals than reporters.
“Trying to practise actual journalism within the parameters of what the UAE permits can be risky,” Stirling continues, addressing the recent mass-firing of staffers at Al-Roeya, “They published a story about Emiratis coping with the government’s suspension of fuel subsidies by crossing the border with Oman to purchase cheap petrol. This obviously would be interpreted by the government as criticism of the subsidy suspension, and an exposure of public discontent – both of which violate the understood mission of UAE journalism. Their job is to perpetually affirm that the government is always right and the people are always happy. It should come as a surprise to no one that dozens of people were fired over that report. Imagine what would happen if a marketing agency put out material saying their client’s product doesn’t work and customers are dissatisfied; you would expect the same response.”
Within weeks of the report on high fuel prices, Al Roeya newspaper was dissolved, but Stirling doesn’t believe the two events were necessarily connected, “Al Roeya’s publisher, International Media Investments (IMI), has claimed that the dissolution of the paper was because they were transitioning into a new Arabic-language business vehicle in collaboration with CNN, and I think that is plausible. This is a move that has been planned for quite some time, and it is expected that a lot of staff would not survive the transition. However, the real story here is not that Al Roeya fired so many people, it is that the most recognised name in news and journalism is partnering with what is functionally a pro-UAE PR agency that will potentially enable the Emirates to spread misinformation to hundreds of millions of people.”
Stirling explains that audiences in the Arab world tend to realise that state-sponsored media outlets are heavily censored and untrustworthy, and have a greater expectation of integrity from Western news organisations, “Righty or wrongly, there is a perception that outlets like CNN or the BBC, while perhaps biassed, do provide actual independent news and information. With IMI operating under the CNN brand, their propaganda will enjoy a greater degree of credibility. CNN is basically co-signing the UAE’s narrative about itself, thereby extending the reach of Abu Dhabi’s censorship to a global scale. We can also expect from this that critical stories about the UAE, reports on human rights abuses, exposés about corruption and business fraud, will be suppressed across all of CNN’s platforms.
“This is deeply concerning, given the fact that international media coverage has been one of the only ways human rights campaigners have had to apply pressure on the UAE. We have helped countless foreign citizens secure their release from wrongful detention precisely by highlighting their cases in the press. Now the world’s largest news organisation is partnering with UAE censors, so what are the chances that they will cover such stories in the future? If we are worried about censorship at the now defunct Al Roeya, we should be much more worried about that same censorship controlling news coverage of the Emirates on a global platform like CNN.”