One cannot help but compare working in the field of journalism in the 1980s with modern times. In the 1980s, when most major UAE newspapers were set up, an Emirati journalist with a university degree earned a salary of Dh5,000 to Dh7,000. The section head did not earn more than Dh12,000, although some have claimed that their salary ranged from Dh25,000 to Dh35,000. The pay scale was not considered that important for the 1980s’ generation. More important was the work in the dailies and particularly the work carried out in the field. If journalists had no experience of field work they were never considered professional journalists. The true source of joy for journalists back then was the feeling that one could say what one felt was right. The bar for expressing oneself was set rather high and more people were interested to work in journalism.
Back then, there were no sensitivities in the relation between journalism and institutions, especially public sector institutions. Nowadays, this kind of relation no longer exists, because everything that is written tends to upset one party or another. Even the way journalists carry out their work has changed immensely.
The previous statement is an excerpt from a conversation with Mohammad Jasem, a 70-year-old retired journalist, who worked in the local news sections of various daily papers in the UAE in the 1980s. The late 1980s marked the beginning of a period which eventually led to widespread freedom movements, or ‘democracies’, around the world. It was also the beginning of the internet era in developing countries, such as Egypt, the UAE and Jordan. News publications began to prosper and spread throughout the GCC countries.
It is worth noting that the first three newspapers in the UAE were Al Khaleej, Al Ittihad, and Al Bayan. Now, there are more than nine daily Arabic and foreign language newspapers, as well as various weekly and monthly magazines.
Jasem’s truthful talk about journalism in its golden era makes one yearn for those days. It was very easy for me to see the picture he tried to paint with his words, because I was part of that generation that used to simply feel proud of being a journalist. Jasem believes that nowadays, working in the field of journalism is seen by many as troublesome. It takes a huge bulk of their time and makes one feel uninspired and tedious. Journalists are also becoming socially reclusive, although they have spent years in a profession in which they had to interact with people from various segments of society who had different interests.
There is a stark contrast between the past and the present. As the salaries of people working in journalism increased, the bar for expressing one’s opinion freely has been lowered, which does not help the development of countries in the region. It also affects the development process of journalistic work. For example, an editor in the UAE or Qatar, with moderate experience and a university degree, would earn about Dh25,000-35,000, while a section head earned Dh35,000-40,000. This salary excluded bonuses earned from annual advertisement revenue.
The salaries of editors and section heads is not determined based on the salaries of other employees in the organisation, rather it is based on other criteria such as work experience, former workplaces, nationality and social status. Moreover, the salaries of editors-in-chief may in some instances exceed Dh70,000.
Nevertheless, freedom of press in the Gulf Cooperation Council is not at the required level, though it is relatively present at varying levels. The press in Kuwait, for example, enjoys a relatively high level of freedom unlike Saudi Arabia, where freedom of the press is very limited. There are certain factors that may limit or affect freedom, but for the most part, these factors and justifications are not acceptable when current level of freedom is compared to the required level.
A comparison between the freedom in today’s press and the one in 1980s will be unfair to the past. At present, there are insinuations that countries in the region are facing challenges and undergoing a critical state and therefore the media must play the role of a protector to “defend” these nations from parties with malicious intent who aim to harm the stability of the region’s political regimes. This false notion led to the press being rallied for an illusionary battle. The role of the press cannot be limited to thwarting foreign issues, because its primary role is to help in the progress of development plans and their diversification. The media can also combat financial and administrative corruption, adopt human rights and environmental issues, as well as enhance personal liberties. The media can basically act as the watchdog that monitors the performance of national institutions.
The question that arises here is why journalism is not an attractive field despite the reasonable and relatively high salaries?
Overall, one can say that journalism in the UAE, since its inception in the 1980s, has not set a professional model that can be emulated by new graduates from colleges of media and journalism. There were neither role models nor could they inspire the new generation to work in the field of journalism. As Jassem said: “The issue of salaries was not a major concern of the 1980s’ generation. The margin of freedom of expression was higher back then and there was increasing interest in working in journalism.”
Today, many people have abandoned journalism and those who remain in this field are pondering how to escape the daily grind of their job. Journalism is a responsible and noble profession with various prospects. The press in Britain, Franc, and the US, as well as Morocco, Lebanon and Egypt makes one feel a sense of joyful jealousy for the future of journalism and the coming generations. Undoubtedly, a country without free press is one that cannot contribute to human civilisation.
Mohammad Hassan Al Harbi is a writer and journalist.