Author: Matt J. Duffy Posted Mart 5, 2013
At Monday’s trial in Abu Dhabi of 94 Emiratis accused of sedition, the court announced foreign journalists would be barred from the proceedings.
Anwar Gargash, the minister of state for foreign affairs, explained on Twitter that the UAE media would cover the trial alone “as per procedures decided by the court.”
The statement suggests that the judges at the State Security Court made the decision to bar foreign journalists on their own. However, the courts in the United Arab Emirates are not truly independent from the government, a hallmark of all Gulf monarchies. Courts rarely overrule the wishes of government prosecutors and have on occasion changed their decisions after the intervention of a ruler. (Emirati commentator Sultan Al Qassemi diligently documented the troubling lack of an independent judiciary in the GCC countries.)
Of course, the decision to bar foreign journalists was likely ordered at the highest level of government. The reason is simple: Foreign journalists are free to report on the trials in an objective and fair manner. The local press, meanwhile, has no freedom to report on the trial in any way that doesn’t support the government’s position.
In the months leading up to the trial, the only reporting in the local press about the arrest of scores of Emiratis has been the official government statements on the arrests. Meanwhile international news outlets kept track of the mounting detentions — which began last spring and escalated over the summer. Many observers thought the arrests resulted from public statements made on Twitter. The local press ignored the mounting number of detentions. They never asked government officials about specific charges, the possibility of bail, or when the trials would start and never interviewed family members about the disappearance of their loved ones.
Of course, the local media has simply followed a long-standing precedent of generally not reporting on matters related to state security, unless the state news agency issues a statement first. The editors understand that the best way to keep their jobs is to follow these unwritten rules.
Therefore, the importance for the government of ensuring coverage of the trial from local reporters cannot be overstated. Looking at the coverage in today’s [March 5] The National and Gulf News papers shows a cursory review of the proceedings with no context regarding the complaints about due process and the alleged mistreatment of the suspects while in custody. The charges against the 94 Emiratis, however, were well detailed in local reports.
Foreign journalists, meanwhile, added additional information out of the trial to offer important information excluded from local reports. For instance, The U.K. Guardian interviewed family members who disputed the government charges. One family member said that the accused were discussing more democracy in the UAE, not plotting to overthrow the government.
“They were meeting in houses so that means they have secret organizations arranging for a coup? All people have gatherings in their houses,” Khalid al-Roken told The Guardian. “Where does that constitute a threat to the government?”
The local media also failed to mention that about two dozen international human rights organizations were told they could not attend the trial, including a former Supreme Court justice from Norway. The local media did report that several UAE-based professional organizations would attend, a sign that Gargash said spoke to the trials' “transparency.” The Gulf News didn’t mention that the UAE government arbitrarily dissolved two professional groups in 2011 after they backed efforts at political reform. The only professional groups at the trial were the ones approved by the government.
The local censorship surrounding the trial has two negative outcomes.
First, local audiences will be woefully uninformed about the case against the suspects, since they’ll only be receiving the government’s arguments — rather than a full hearing. Last year during Federal National Council elections, the UAE government said it wanted its citizens to be more aware and engaged about public affairs. Imperious coverage of this trial won’t help with that goal.
Second, societies tend to benefit from impartial news coverage of trials. Over the years, the policymakers have reasoned that the public benefits more from transparent trials — covered with a press free from government restrictions — than from any collateral harm. In short, judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys all behave better when they know they’ll be accountable to the public for their actions.
And a properly functioning judiciary is an international hallmark of good governance, ensuring that no one branch of government can become too powerful and over-reach its bounds. Many foreign observers suspect that the UAE authorities are doing just that — overstepping the boundaries of necessity with these prosecutions.
However, because of a well-heeled media system, only a minority of UAE residents are likely agrees with that assessment.
Dr. Matt J. Duffy teaches journalism and international media law at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia, where he is a fellow at the Center of International Media Education. His book Media Laws of the United Arab Emirates will be published later this year by Wolters Kluwer.
Read More: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/03/uae-bars-journalists-press-freedom-sedition-trial.html
Matt J. Duffy has a doctorate in public communication. He teaches journalism and international media law at Georgia State University in Atlanta, where he is a fellow at the Center of International Media Education. His book, Media Laws of the United Arab Emirates, will be published later this year by Wolters Kluwer.