Saturday, September 23, 2006

Freedom of the press?

There's an interesting but frustrating two page spread in Gulf News' Weekend Review headlined Media needs to act with greater responsibility.

Briefly, it reports on a meeting called by Al Bayan to 'debate and explore the necessity of maintaining a clear media policy and preserving social values'. That is because 'the absence of clear and well-defined media guidelines is resulting in journalism losing its ethics.

I agree with part of that statement. A lack of ethics is apparent. But surely that's down to responsible, effective editing. As far as I'm concerned it's a cop-out to say guidelines have to be set. Professionalism, common sense and a sense of propriety are what's needed, not legislation.

I fully agree with the concern that was behind the whole exercise: Media watchers are concerned that the new found openness that finds its way to the letters columns could create divisive cracks in a society that aspires at preserving peace and harmony among its residents.

I've been amazed at some, many in fact, of the letters which have been published in English-language newspapers - by '7Days' in particular.

There are two categories that I'm amazed to have seen published:

*spoof letters. Obvious send-up letters, designed to draw angry responses. Some were harmless, but others were inflamatory. Both types should have been weeded out by the Letters Editor and not published. The letters page should be for genuine letters.

*letters containing inflamatory, rascist, derogatory remarks about other people. These simply should never see the light of day.

How does it happen? I said that professionalism, common sense and a sense of propriety are what's needed. The Managing Editor of 7Days gives the game away when he is quoted as saying: "Currently, I deal with letters that come to us and others tend to this while I am away. There are some foreign journalists who have been living in the UAE for the last year or two and might not pay attention to some details.


Who are these 'others' who are given responsibility for editing the letters page? Are they qualified? Are they professional? The evidence would suggest they are not. Not by a long way.

And "journalists...may not pay attention to some details"! Why they hell are they still employed then? And how are their errors of judgement getting past the Editor? Is there no checking?

This is unprofessional in the extreme.


I'm frustrated with the report on several levels. First, the meeting invited 'Arabic speaking media representatives...from the English and non-English media'. To me that's only half a meeting. If you really want to seriously debate such things in Dubai you have to include non-Arabic speakers. The participants were high-flyers, but it was only nine people.

I was frustrated at the brevity of the report. It gave only one or two quotes from only six of the participants. And there was no summing up, no indication whether anything was agreed upon, or recommendations would be made - and if so, to whom. There was no overview of what took place. It was really just a teaser and because of the importance of the subject I thought it should have been much more than that.

I was also frustrated at comments by some of the participants. Sweeping generalisations about groups of people and a lack of understanding of what they were about. In fact, much like some of the letters they were complaining about!

An example:

The Executive Managing Editor for Local Issues, Al Ittihad says: "Expatriates have resentment towards UAE nationals and the media is used to pass around these feelings.

Is that a sweeping statement or not! I'm an expatriate and I certainly don't resent Emiratis, and I can't think of anyone I mix with who isn't the same.

He continues: "...and criticise the Ministry of Labour for the Emiratisation of one or two vocations in the private sector, this is intentionally harmful." No it isn't. It is not harmful and it is not intended to be harmful. It was a discussion about the desirability of a policy that assumes thousands of people from one particular group are suitable, suited, trained, competent to take over an entire corporate function throughout the country. Had the policy stated that only Indians or Australians, for example, could be HR Directors there would have been a similar reaction.

And he continues: "I say there is a fierce attack, such as that conducted in connection to labourers' rights. BBC, CNN, and International Labour Organisation all point on their websites to the UAE's alleged abuse of labourers. If we go back to the Arab newspapers' archives, we will see numerous cases, where we defended labourers. We realise there are problems, with some sponsors stepping over the line, but most of them are not UAE nationals.

What's the problem here? The Arabic newspapers defended labourers. Good for them. So what's wrong with English-language newspapers doing the same thing? What's wrong with outside organisations highlighting abuses? That's what happens in the real world. Dubai can't hide any more, it strives very hard to be in the world's spotlight and it must expect examination of its practices.

"...sponsors stepping over the line, but most of them are not UAE nationals." I haven't read anywhere that specifically Emirati sponsors are being blamed for abuse of labourers. Stronger laws and enforcement of laws has been the demand, with stories of non-payment of wages or bad conditions being examples of why that is needed.

The whole thing was off-beam, missed the point. The problem isn't to do with expat workers, resentment of Emiratis, fierce attacks about labourers, intentional harm to the country, the need for media guidelines. Nothing of the sort.

It's about two things. Dubai, and the UAE in general, working hard to be in the world's spotlight, wanting to join international organisations, wanting free trade agreements - and having to accept that this will involve greater scrutiny of its laws and practices, greater comment from the world's media about all manner of things.

And it's about the lack of professionalism in our media. We don't need legislation, we need professional media people - all the way from editors to journalists and proof readers.


Keefieboy said...

Excellent post Seabee!

Seabee said...

Nice of you to say so Keefieboy.