Saturday, July 15, 2006

Censorship

The UAE is, on balance, a free society including in its policies toward free speech. There are, however, a few well-known boundaries. One does not criticize Islam or the country’s rulers, and overly abusive or sexually explicit forms of expression can also result in prosecution. If one is content to stay clear of or at least tiptoe around topics such as these, the reach of the censor need not be of great concern.

It is this moderate level of censorship which one has to live with in the UAE. It isn’t particularly excessive or intrusive. But the Internet poses its own challenges to those who value free speech. Thanks to overly aggressive and imprecise filtering, web surfing can be a rather hit and miss affair.

Websites may be blocked or banned for being judged to contain overly critical, permissive or unpopular political or religious views. Sexual content and innuendos of the same are also routinely blocked. Although it is mainly these few issues that concern the Internet censors, the imprecise nature of the tools they use results in much more being nixed. A well-known victim of the censor’s broad swipe is photo-sharing service Flickr.com.

It is almost a wonder that Dubai is able to promote itself as a regional Internet hub, except for the fact that it allows its Internet City and a few other areas to operate outside of the nationwide proxy.

On balance, bloggers can blog without much trepidation. Editors can publish and pundits can expound—again, provided they take care not to cross those few well-known boundaries.

But the risk of unwarranted prosecution is there. The UAE has a rather detailed law outlining restrictions on the press. It is often a question of how frequently and severely the law is applied. The answer it seems is infrequently and lightly enough to allow the press and freedom of speech to flourish mostly unhindered. Nonetheless, there are efforts being made by journalists to further the cause of free speech. A Gulf News article dated 23-Jan-2006 reports:

Media activists will submit a proposal for amendments to the UAE's press law, which will demand freedom of speech as a fundamental right, and reporting restrictions curtailed to a few "exceptional cases".
What an event such as this illustrates is that, if nothing else, the UAE is in practice a society ever moving in the direction of more liberalization, not less. This applies to business, industry, law and society in general, including the cherished notion of free speech.

So, while censorship will likely always be a stealthy factor to contend with on key topics, the risks associated with freedom of expression will continue to diminish in the UAE.

Postscript

SecretDubai is a bit miffed at Etisalat's Internet controls.

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3 comments:

LizzieD said...

BD, I am afraid I must disagree with your post, to a degree. While, overall, in general, the press is freer to write about topics that were once off totally limits, there is a lot of censorhsip that goes on behind the scenes that only us journos will ever hear about. I have friends at all the dailies here and the type of censorship they face is, in some cases, worse and more deep-seated than silly stuff like sexual content. It's the kind of censorship that protects the powerful who are often engaged in some sort of exploitation of the weak. The publishers here ALL bow down to the pressure, even our beloved sparky expat tabloid. Most readers will never know these stories. Just look up certain investigative pieces from the dailies from a year ago or so and you will see that they were never written about again. Or you may sometimes wonder why the international press has better stories about the UAE than the local press...who do you think tips off the international press? Anyway, the UAE has a very long way to go in becoming a society than embraces free speech.

BD said...

Thanks for the insight, Lizzie. My own observations come as a "layman" and an amateur, as far as blogging goes as a medium of public expression. I would take your comments to suggest that even we bloggers run the risk of probing in ways the powers-that-be might not be ready to accept.

I have to say that one thing which has suggested to me an admirable degree of openness in the press is the continual, often critical coverage of labor issues. Almost daily there are news reports on the bad conditions such workers face. Perhaps there are a few issues, like labor, that the government is prepared to let play out in the public arena.

Anonymous said...

But oddly the real culprits are never named. For example, when the workers at the Burj Dubai protested, the only company named and questioned was the subcontractor -- as opposed to the overall developer, Emaar. What tends to happen here is that a subcontrator doesn't get paid and so the subcontractor's workers don't get paid. But the subcontractor isn't allowed to go after the real culprit -- the big developers, so those guys are conveniently left out of the news stories. Same with other developers, not just Emaar.