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The media environment of the Trucial States, which went on to become the UAE after the independence in 1971, was largely underdeveloped due to poor literacy rates and the lack of infrastructure deployed by the British occupation. Modern mass media outlets did not appear until the 1960s, with the launch of the first official broadcast radio station, Abu Dhabi Radio, in 1966, the launch of the first television channel Abu Dhabi Television in 1969, and the emergence of several weekly newspapers (printed in Beirut and delivered to the region) throughout the decade.
The first Emirati daily newspaper, Al-Khalij, was established in Sharjah in 1970, a year before the official formation of the UAE. Following this event, moves were made to expand media production throughout the Emirates to appeal to the diverse population. In 1972, a television channel in Dubai was established, followed by Channel 33 (or Dubai 33) in 1977, specifically geared towards expatriates. More daily newspapers, including English-language titles, appeared across the Emirates over the course of the decade, most of them privately owned. Across the 1970s and 1980s, the Ministry of Culture, founded in 1972, rolled out a comprehensive terrestrial transmission network for television and radio to cater to new outlets’ emergence.
The UAE only formalized media laws in the 1980s, first with the Press and Publications Law introduction in 1980. This legislation allowed UAE authorities to censor domestic and foreign content and outlawed criticism of the government, the ruling family, and allied states. Defamation was also decreed a criminal act while the publication of information that could damage the Emirati economy was banned.
From the 1990s onwards, the UAE’s broadcasting environment changed significantly. With satellite television growth, Emirati broadcasters based in Dubai and Abu Dhabi proliferated and began to air content to international audiences. Simultaneously, the number of local radio stations also increased in conjunction with developments in the country’s communication network. The most significant event in UAE broadcast media history was the launch of the country’s first “media free zone” (MFZ) in Dubai in 2002. These are areas where foreign media outlets are allowed to operate and produce content for foreign audiences in a tax-free environment, albeit in accordance with local laws and the MFZ’s regulatory guidelines. The UAE currently hosts four MFZs in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Fujairah, and Ras al-Khaimah, which have helped transform the country into a regional media hub, popular with international broadcasters such as the BBC, CNN, AFP, and Al-Arabiya.
The internet was first made publicly available in the UAE in 1995, and the country was quick to adopt it by installing nationwide infrastructure through the dominant telecommunication provider, Etisalat. Today, according to the World Economic Forum ranking, the UAE is considered the 26th most networked nation in the world. It is just ahead of Qatar and the highest-ranked Arab state. However, Emirati authorities have also been quick to assert control over internet usage in the country, establishing the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) in 2003 to filter websites deemed contrary to Emirati political or moral values.
The present-day media environment in the UAE counts numerous local Emirati media outlets and major international news providers, which operate alongside each other in a cosmopolitan environment. Yet the restrictive media legislation that has been in force since 1980 means that this environment is also one characterised by self-censorship and government control, and its conditions are worsening.
Freedom of Expression
Despite its international reputation as a media hub, the UAE media environment is highly repressive and ranks 119 of 180 in Reporters Without Borders’ 2016 World Press Freedom Index.
Article 30 of the 1971 constitution of the UAE (amended in 2004) asserts that “Freedom to hold opinions and express them orally, in writing or by other means of expression shall be guaranteed within the limits of the law.” However, as is common with other Gulf states, additional laws and executive powers effectively render this constitutional provision redundant. Human rights watchdog Freedom House considers the 1980 Emirati Press and Publications Law to be “one of the most restrictive press laws in the Arab world.” The law prescribes fines and prison sentences for those who criticize the Emirati government, the ruling family, or the rulers of an allied state while also outlawing material deemed damaging to the Emirati national image or economy. A draft version of a new media law was adopted by the UAE’s advisory council in 2009, promising to eradicate prison terms for journalistic offenses but still enforcing exorbitant fines. However, it has yet to receive official ratification.
Such repressive legislation has been compounded in recent years by new laws designed to regulate online activity. The 2012 Cybercrime Law outlines fines and prison sentences for individuals who contravene the UAE’s political, social, and religious values online while also criminalizing a range of subjective online activities such as damaging national unity or mocking or insulting the state and its leaders. The government also retains the right to filter and close down websites.
A 2014 Terrorism Law prescribed criminal sentences for “publicly declaring one’s animosity or lack of allegiance to the state or the regime.” Furthermore, in 2015, the Emirati government passed the Federal Decree-Law 2/2015, citing the need for greater legislation to combat the threat of terrorism and hate speech. The decree criminalizes insults to God or Islam and stipulates jail terms of 6 months to 10 years.
Non-Emiratis constitute the majority of journalists who operate in the UAE, and in recent years, several of them have been arrested or dismissed for their media activities. In 2013, Egyptian journalist Anas Fouda was held incommunicado without charge for a month, allegedly due to his links with the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2014, the Ugandan journalist Yasin Kakande was sacked from the English-language Emirati newspaper The National after publishing a book that mentioned self-censorship in the UAE. In 2015, Jordanian journalist Tayseer al-Najjar was arrested following Facebook posts in which he criticized Israel, Egypt, and the Gulf states. As of January 2017, he continues to be held without charge. And in March 2016, an unnamed man from Oman was jailed for three years, after which he will be deported, for describing the UAE’s fallen soldiers in Yemen as “cowards” in a series of WhatsApp messages.
Emirati journalists and commentators have also received harsh penalties and sentences in recent years, most notably for social media posts and online activities supporting outlawed parties and movements. In 2013, the blogger Khalifa al-Nuaimi and active Twittos Rashid al-Shamsi and Musabeh al-Rumaithy were arrested for their online activities and sentenced to 10 years in prison in light of their alleged involvement with the banned opposition group Al-Islah. In 2014, Osama Al-Najjar was sentenced to three years in prison after claiming on Twitter that his father, arrested for allegedly being linked to Al-Islah, had been tortured by Emirati security personnel. In 2016, Marwan Mohamed Ateej was handed a 5-year prison sentence for referring to the Muslim Brotherhood as “peaceful, unarmed heroes” in online posts.
A 2014 survey by the UK-based market research company TNS Global found that the UAE has one of the highest television rates viewership in the world, with 86 percent of respondents claiming to watch television at least once a day. Like the rest of the traditional Emirati media, television broadcasting is concentrated among a small group of media companies with either direct government links or favorable relations with the ruling family. All terrestrial broadcasters operate as part of larger umbrella groups such as Abu Dhabi Media, Dubai Media Incorporated, and Sharjah Media Corporation. However, the vast majority of Emiratis opt to watch some of the hundreds of channels available to them via foreign satellites. Figures from 2013, released by viewership aggregator Tview, listed seven channels from the Saudi-owned MBC networks in the top ten most-viewed channels in the UAE, which also featured the Indian-owned Asianet Middle East Asianet News, and the Hindi-language Sony TV. The most prominent domestic broadcasters are as follows:
A 2016 survey by Ispos Connect has shown radio to be a popular medium in the UAE, with 78 percent of respondents aged 15 and over claiming to listen to radio daily. Earlier Ipsos research, conducted in 2009, found that radio stations belonging to the Arabian Radio Network (ARN), itself a subsidiary of the Arab Media Group, dominate the most-listened-to broadcasts. Music stations such as Virgin Radio Dubai (Western contemporary music), City 101.6 (Bollywood), and Al-Arabiya 99.0 (Arabic music) are by far the most popular listening choices. English-language channel Dubai Eye 103.8 is the country’s most listened-to station for news and talk shows.
The Oxford Business Group notes that the UAE has some of the highest press circulation figures in the Gulf, with 56 percent of literate citizens claiming to read a newspaper every day. The press landscape has evolved to include 14 daily newspapers, although ownership is still concentrated among the country’s major media organisations. Furthermore, the country’s repressive publication laws mean that Emirati print journalism is largely subservient to the government and the ruling family. In recent years, the circulation of the most notable domestic publications was as follows:
|Estimated Daily Circulation
Most popular Emirati newspapers by 2015 estimated circulation. Source: Oxford Business Group
While the internet and online publication provides an opportunity for greater diversity in Emirati media production, in contrast to the heavily concentrated and state-affiliated traditional media environment, the Emirati authorities have imposed strict regulations and control over this domain.
In line with other Gulf States’ policies, the UAE blocked access to Qatari-owned news website Al-Araby al-Jadeed in 2016, after the website wrote about the country’s human rights abuses. All Israeli domain names and several Iranian news agencies such as Fars News are also blocked.
The authorities adopt a similarly resolute stance when it comes to domestic websites. In 2009, UAE Hewar was launched as an internet forum to discuss Emirati issues. It quickly proved popular, and early discussion topics included religion, human rights, and racial discrimination. However, the website quickly became the target of government censorship and was closed down indefinitely in 2010. A request to unblock the website was rejected in 2012 by the Federal Supreme Court. Secret Dubai Diary, a viral blog that began in 2002 and anonymously provided insights into daily life in the Emirates, was blocked by the TRA in 2010.
Dozens of human rights campaign websites and affiliated social media accounts, such as tracking Al-Islah members’ trials or highlighting the prison conditions of jailed expatriates, have been repeatedly shut down or blocked domestically in recent years by the TRA.