Mass shooting at UAE newspaper raises censorship issue

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Dubai, United Arab Emirates — The story of high fuel prices was safe, editors agreed, even under the UAE’s strict press laws.

Instead, he unleashed a firestorm at Al Roeya newspaper in Dubai. Within days, the best writers were interviewed. Within weeks, dozens of employees were fired and the printing plant was declared dissolved.

The newspaper’s publisher, Abu Dhabi-based International Media Investments, or IMI, said Al Roeya’s closure stemmed only from its transformation into a new Arabic-language outlet with CNN. However, eight people with direct knowledge of the paper’s mass layoffs told The Associated Press that the layoffs came immediately after the story about gasoline prices in the UAE.

Their accounts, given on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, show the limits of speech in the autocratic nation which tightly controls its national media. Self-censorship is rife among local media reporters expected to deliver a flood of good news in the UAE, which touts itself as an attractive globalized destination for Western tourists, investors and media companies.

“The United Arab Emirates boasts of being liberal and open for business while continuing its repression,” said Cathryn Grothe, Middle East research analyst at the Washington-based group Freedom House. “Censorship is rampant, online and offline. … This limits the work journalists are able to do.”

IMI declined to comment on the article published just weeks before the announced closure of Al Roeya. The company highlighted its intention to launch months-long negotiations on CNN Business Arabic.

Al Roeya, which means ‘The Vision’ in Arabic, was founded in 2012 and rebranded by IMI three years ago to provide local and global news to Arab youth.

IMI is owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the billionaire brother of the UAE president who also owns British soccer club Manchester City. IMI’s main outlets are The National, an English-language broadsheet, and Sky News Arabia.

While Al Roeya toed the official UAE line, its pages provided detailed business information.

The story that employees say sparked the paper’s crisis happened earlier this summer, when high prices were in the news. Unlike its neighbours, the oil-producing UAE has phased out fuel subsidies. Citizens accustomed to cheap gas and cradle-to-grave welfare felt the sting after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent oil prices soaring.

Al Roeya interviewed Emiratis who had resorted to cost-cutting measures. A few citizens living near the border with Oman, where drivers pay half as much for fuel as in the UAE due to government subsidies, told Al Roeya they had entered the sultanate to refuel. their cars. Some even reportedly had extra fuel tanks installed on their vehicles.

The story spread like wildfire on social media on June 2, particularly the anecdote about cross-border refueling. However, within hours the article was removed from the website and never printed.

Several employees implicated in the story were called into the office a few days later. They were suspended from their jobs and questioned extensively by representatives of IMI and Al Roeya and by a lawyer about every step and every person involved in the creation, editing and publication of the history, according to those familiar with the events.

A week later, the band had a choice: resign with extra benefits or be fired and face possible repercussions. Those who signed a resignation letter promised not to disclose anything about the reasons for their dismissal or to criticize the publication, according to a copy of one such letter obtained by the AP.

The eight forced to quit included top editors. Morale plummeted.

More than a week later, IMI CEO Nart Bouran visited the newsroom for a general meeting.

At the start of the meeting, the other staff members had no reason to fear for their jobs, according to some familiar with the internal discussions at the newspaper. They said IMI’s senior staff had assured staff over the past year that their jobs were secure, as the newspaper’s editorial focus has shifted primarily to business coverage.

Instead, Bouran declared the dissolution of Al Roeya and the imminent launch of the Arabic-language outlet with CNN. At least 35 employees lost their jobs in a single day, the insiders said. Others said dozens more had been made redundant, with severance pay.

IMI did not respond to repeated questions about how many people it has fired. Profiles on the LinkedIn jobs site suggest some 90 people worked at Al Roeya.

The newspaper kept a small team to update its website until the launch of CNN Business Arabic, people familiar with the matter said.

“This (Al Roeya) case seems to be part of the general repressive environment,” Grothe of Freedom House said. “It has a paralyzing effect.”

While some foreign journalists have the security of returning home to countries that support press freedom, Arab journalists who form the backbone of the country’s local media fear jeopardizing their residency status, which is tied to their work.

Al Roeya printed its latest issue on June 21 with the title: “A New Promise, A Renewed Era. CNN Business Arabic is expected to launch by the end of the year.

IMI described Al Roeya’s transition to CNN Business Arabic as long-planned, saying the change “unfortunately required layoffs.” He denied that the newspaper’s closure was “in any way related to Al Roeya’s editorial production”.

Asked about the layoffs, CNN spokesman Dan Faulks referred the AP to IMI’s statement and did not elaborate.

Mohamed al-Hamadi, the head of the UAE’s state-backed journalists’ association, said the group “provided the necessary support” to the dismissed journalists and backed IMI’s description of the dismissals.

The upheaval recalled other dramatic episodes that rocked the local press in the UAE in recent years. In 2017, the government temporarily banned the publication of Arabian Business magazine after it reported that courts in Dubai were liquidating dozens of failed real estate projects resulting from the 2009 global financial crisis.

The downturn, which has drawn a slew of negative headlines about Dubai’s debt crisis, has prompted the UAE to toughen its media laws. The country’s crackdown on online dissent then culminated in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, which were stoked by economic discontent.

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