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UAE Trial Adds to Controversy Over Press Freedom, Political Islam

Guilty verdicts in the trial of 94 people accused of plotting to overthrow the UAE government have raised new questions about both press freedom and the role of political Islam.
A man walks past the Dubai Courts November 1, 2012. REUTERS/Jumana ElHeloueh   (UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - Tags: CRIME LAW) - RTR39UPY

The trial of the 94 people accused of attempting to overthrow the government of the United Arab Emirates ended on July 2 with 69 guilty verdicts and made an impact on both political Islam and freedom of expression in the Emirates.

The 94 Emiratis were accused of being members of Al Islah, an Islamic group loosely affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. A security court convicted 69 of the accused of attempting to overthrow the government. The 10- to 15-year sentences cannot be appealed. The judge acquitted the other 25 accused, including all 13 women.

All of the accused declared their innocence and many insisted that they merely made suggestions for reforms in the UAE. Political parties are banned in the Arabian Gulf country that has not had any of the types of protests seen throughout the region.

Foreign journalists were barred from attending the trial, leaving heavily censored local journalists to cover the issue. The government made a point of strictly controlling information about the arrests and trial. In November 2012, the cybercrime law was updated to include several sections that criminalized criticism or disparagement of the rulers on social-media networks.

Earlier this year, security forces detained two Emiratis who had offered details about the trial via social media and accused them of reporting “false news” — a criminal charge internationally decried as an affront to free expression. Another Emirati who had been critical of the trial was arrested just before the verdict, according to human rights workers. These actions make it difficult for journalists or anyone else to offer an objective perspective on the government’s case without fear of prosecution.

The trial was marred with irregularities. Some defendants complained of torture, didn’t have access to their lawyers and never heard the prosecution's evidence. The evidence of their “plot” appeared to be no more than discussions, criticism and dissent.

Indeed, observers inside the country saw the trial as a message to political Islamists who might try to agitate in the UAE. In an editorial in The National newspaper in Abu Dhabi, Hassan Hassan said that the verdict marks a new beginning for the Muslim Brotherhood — an organization whose influence has waxed and waned for decades in the country.

“The verdict marks an end to years of vagueness about the nature of the organization and its place in this country — one of those convicted was a member of a ruling family, Sultan bin Kayed Al Qasimi, the chairman of Al Islah,” he wrote.

Several progressive Emiratis made the same point in a recent New York Times article.

“We don’t want your political Islam here,” Sultan Al Qassemi, a political commentator, aptly put it. “Go mess up another country.”

While a valid concern, the UAE government is using a sledgehammer where a scalpel would have sufficed. The country has created an extremely restrictive environment where only certain perspectives are allowed. 

A quick look at the local press shows that only positive opinions about the verdict were published. Gulf News offered an article sharing all the positive reactions on Twitter that supported the verdict and The National published an editorial praising the actions of the court. No articles or editorials offered any criticism of the verdict. These views would never be sought, as the press is controlled by long-understood “red lines” that journalists follow.

Given this environment, the United Arab Emirates ranks poorly in international comparisons of press freedom. Reporters Without Borders gives the UAE a 114 ranking out of 179 and Freedom House labels its press as “not free.”

Still, the English-language press has done a better job than the Arabic. In fact, the judge in the case even chided Arabic-language outlets for their extreme bias against the accused.

Some of the early trial coverage tended to be straightforward — with details of the allegations of abuse and trouble that the defendants had in accessing prosecution files. However, as the verdict approached, some observers saw a change in the coverage.

“The numerous articles proclaiming the independence of the judiciary and personal qualities of the presiding judge appeared to be a transparent attempt to condition the public for the guilty verdicts and engender loyalty among citizens to ensure they would be sensitive to any criticism of the process,” said Rori Donaghy, a human rights campaigner based in London, to Al-Monitor.

The only way for average Emiratis to find uncensored information about the trial was to seek it out either in local anonymous Twitter accounts such as @political_trial or @uae_detainees.

Activist Ahmed Mansoor told Al-Monitor that the Arabic Twitter account @EmiratesAffairs “showed a very reasonable adherence to honesty in covering of the trial, certainly more than the coverage of the Arabic newspaper, from my point of view.”

Meanwhile, the UAE Journalists Association praised the trial and the freedom of expression in the country.

“Freedom enjoys a space as widely open as the desert and the sea of the UAE, guaranteed by the constitution and the inherited customs [of] the majlises [councils] of our generous rulers,” the group stated.

Obviously, such a statement is safe to make. But would the Journalists Association feel comfortable criticizing their freedom? Given the UAE’s recent crackdown on criticism and dissent, the answer is clear.

A screenshot shows the headline and additional text from the website of Dubai’s Gulf News, which does not follow the conventions of impartial journalism. 

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.

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