Monday, December 22, 2008

Gulf Benefits from Media Crisis in the West

Global economic turndown is accelerating an already painful transition in the Western media. While journalists and media professionals grapple with the fallout and debate the fate of the mainstream media as we know it, for many of the more than 15,000 who this year alone lost a job in journalism in the US, the issues are existential. Many are looking for salvation in the Middle East where despite economic doom and gloom, the media industry is still expanding.

Recruiters report a more than 50% increase in the number of western journalists looking for jobs in the region. For Middle Eastern media this means the ability to choose from a larger and more qualified pool than before, a development that started with Abu Dhabi’s launch earlier this year of The National, an English-language daily, that recruited from some of the West’s greatest brand names, including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Daily Telegraph.

The National constitutes in many was a breath of fresh air, producing in layout and content one of the region’s journalistically most professional publications. Yet even it has had to tome down its aspirations to be a hard-hitting, investigative product that lets the chips fall where they may and acts as the force that holds the powers to be accountable. For those that find employment in a region and an environment they know little about, the transition may prove more difficult than expected. Those that preceded them and have encountered the boundaries of a free press in the region can tell the story. This is not to say that press freedom in parts of the region have not come a long way. Qatar’s Al Jazeera and The National are undeniable proof. Yet, it remains a far cry from the freedoms the Western press enjoys as a result of legal restrictions, informal red lines and the lack of a culture in which sources see the media as more than mere scribes.

Often the issue is that governments have yet to go beyond simply talking the talk. The UAE is currently discussing a new media law to pass the existing one that was enacted 28 years ago. Dubai kicked off the development of media free zones and has become with Dubai Media City a regional hub. Similar initiatives are underway in Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Jordan and Egypt, the later two certainly being locations with degrees of media control. In September, UAE Vice President and Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, suggested that the new law should no longer allow for journalists to risk imprisonment for carrying out their duties. An appeals court in Dubai within weeks of Sheikh Mohammed’s statement overturned the conviction of two journalists on libel charges.

International press organization Reporters Without Borders ranks the UAE as one of the region’s most liberal media environments. It sees the main problem for press freedom in the emirates as self-censorship practised by media, which eschew criticism of the government in order to avoid repercussions. Putting a legal framework in place that allows journalists to fulfil their role as part of the fourth estate is a key ingredient for nurturing a free press. Encouraging a culture receptive to critical reporting without red lines is another. Sheikh Mohammed’s statement and the obvious effect it had on the appeals court is an important step in shaping an environment conducive to independent investigative reporting.

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