At long last, the Federal National Council (FNC) will finally hold a session [today] to discuss the media, having postponed four consecutive sessions for no apparent reason.
Despite the significance of the media especially with regard to the status of journalism, their plight is not given the attention it deserves. Press freedom is deteriorating and freedom of expression is in increasing danger.
Journalists are no longer doing their duty, meaning that the press is no longer monitoring the performance of government. The issues that face media professionals are numerous and cannot be resolved in one session, or in a confrontation between the FNC and the National Media Council (NMC) the body tasked with defending the media in the UAE.
Of course, the issue of Emiratising the media in general and newspapers in particular should be discussed. But the media is faced with two major challenges. The first is the unregulated media openness, represented by the huge flow of information in the foreign media. The second is the inability of the national media to compete due to the restrictions imposed on them.
This situation has led to the lack of a national methodology in management and co-ordination as well as in making use of information. There is also an inconsistency between the status of the UAE as a modern state as a result of economic development, the construction boom and social change and the clear failure of the media to cope with this progress and create a clear national identity that is capable of challenging the foreign media. The question raised on several occasions is: Do our local media enjoy a minimum degree of freedom? However, not many people have the courage to answer it and acknowledge that the ceiling of press freedom is low. Our newspapers are hardly given the freedom to tackle most issues and bring to light social, political, economic and even sports stories.
There isn't enough protection provided to journalists and self-censorship is practised by our newspapers to avoid angering official bodies and to please the government. Some newspapers even indulge in hypocrisy to please officials and the bodies they represent, and there is also full subordination to advertisers. Between all these issues, the main causes, such as freedom and Emiratisation of the media, were lost.
Take up the challenge
The FNC is requested to raise its voice in defence of press freedom and the rights of Emirati journalists, and to hold an honest and clear dialogue with official bodies responsible for the media to set things straight. It is no secret that one of the main obstacles facing the media and journalists is the total inability of the FNC to protect journalists from the mistreatment they face. Mismanagement and confusion abound in most media outlets, as a result of the lack of experience of the people running them, from editors to editors-in-chief. Some newspapers are run by people who care only about their own interests, at the expense of the public interest. As a result, most local newspapers have become unattractive employers for national journalists, whether young or experienced. Only about 10 per cent of jour nalists working in the country are Emiratis. A few years ago, the figure at some newspapers was over 40 per cent. This sharp decline in the numbe r of Emirati journalists means there has been an exodus from local newspapers.
Another point is that many veteran journalists have retired early. While most countries take pride in their veteran journalists, our media outlets pension them off when they are at the height of their powers. It is well known that the value of a journalist increases as he gets older. But here, this does not seem to be the case.
Adding to their woes, journalists battle to get even the simplest information due to the non-co-operation of most official bodies which is another issue that the NMC did nothing about. On this issue, the NMC has taken the side of the government bodies, as if it is totally unconcerned with media affairs. No official is ready to respond to a journalist, and no spokesperson provides information for any ministry or government body. The title of official spokesperson means nothing, because the spokesperson thinks he is a high-ranking official and that journalists are inferior to him, and accordingly declines to co-operate with them. As a result, most local newspapers have become carbon copies of one another, dependent on the Emirates News Agency (WAM).
Standards have declined such that newspapers carry a little news, advertisements and a few shallow words. They have also lost their role as a watchdog. The NMC and editors of newspapers ignore the fact that today's reader has changed and does not look for official statements in newspapers, because he can turn to internet news sites and forums for the information he wants. However, the most critical issue is that the government has become much more aggressive with the media and its people. The list of banned subjects is growing, and there are more instructions not to publish certain stories. Furthermore, editors-in-chief are used to applying pressure on journalists, which has turned some of these editors into representatives of the government, practising vicious censorship of their own newspapers.
As a result, the ceiling of press freedom has become lower than ever, while newspaper standards have declined due to the disappearance of articles that reveal violations and show the facts as they are. Simply put, newspapers satisfy only the advertisers. Where is the role of the NMC in protecting journalists, obliging official bodies to provide information and promoting the Emiratisation of the media? How is it possible that the Media College in the UAE is more than three decades old, but the editors-in-chief, managing editors and deputy editors of most newspapers are still non-Emiratis? We wonder.