Newspaper article The Observer (Gladstone, Australia)

UAE Sweeps Crisis under Carpet

Newspaper article The Observer (Gladstone, Australia)

UAE Sweeps Crisis under Carpet

Article excerpt

Byline: Barbara Surk

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 in the United Arab Emirates wider powers to regulate increasingly gloomy economic reporting after years of basking in coverage of hyper-growth and glitterati 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 say 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 cancelled 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 $US136,000 ($A215,565) for "carrying misleading news that harms the national economy" and for "deliberately publishing false news."

It also includes fines of about $US272,000 ($A431,130) 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. …

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