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UAE ranked 86th alongside Uganda for press freedom

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News that the UAE has been ranked 86th in the world for press freedom, alongside Uganda, has resulted in some soul searching among local journalists.

The Reporters without Borders 2009 World Press Freedom Index is a recognized methodology and countries like the USA and UK are ranked equally at number 20. Top marks go to the Scandinavian countries, and Japan is 17th.

Major embarrassment

There are two responses that the UAE can make to this result: to argue that it is unfair; or to work out how to do better. It is certainly a major embarrassment for a country that ranks itself among the most liberal in the Arab World, with Kuwait and Lebanon placed 60th and 61st respectively.

However, tough economic times pose serious problems for journalists all over the world. It is easy enough to report a boom. In the bad times people suffer and the finger is pointed. Sometimes people expect the press to do the work of the police or the local prosecutor’s office.

This is generally unreasonable. The press do not have the resources to unearth corruption and establish the sort of evidence that will stand up in court to justify what they say. And if they cannot do that they have no business making accusations without verifiable information. A journalist is not a judge or policeman, and should not be expected to act like one.

Media law

If criticism is made about press freedom then it is not really the fault of the press. It is the system in which the press is operating. That is a matter for government decree, and in the UAE a new draft media law approved by the Federal National Council in January 2009 is still awaiting final approval.

The government also perhaps needs to look again at how it releases information to the press. And after the Dubai debt PR disaster of last December no doubt that is being done.

It is all a question of degree. No country permits absolute freedom of the press. The tyranny of the media would be a disaster with false and inaccurate accusations thrown in every direction with no comeback for the unlucky victims.

In the UK, US and UAE you can sue for libel and defamation. This check has to exist to balance the power of the media, and sometimes even that is not enough. The Scandinavian countries come top because life is easy there and so the media do not have to deal with tough stories.

News agencies in the UAE

For the UAE this ranking ought to be a wake-up call. But it is also a little unfair in that international media like Reuters and Bloomberg report freely from Dubai while the local press works under a tighter regime.

Thus to see the UAE in the same light as a backward African state like Uganda is something of a nonsense, but the onus is still on the local press to get its act together with the encouragement of the government.

Abu Dhabi has led the way with its hands-off ownership of The National, a relatively new broadsheet that won some applause for its handling of the debt crisis and other sensitive issues. Perhaps this is the way forward.

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Written by Peter Cooper

February 1, 2010 at 11:07 am

Posted in Culture, Media

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