How Investigative Journalism Encourages Debate – the Case of Apple and Bloomberg

Bloomberg's scoop on Apple's ownership structure in the UAE was an example of investigative journalism that we often sorely miss in the Gulf

Bloomberg’s scoop on Apple’s ownership structure in the UAE was an example of investigative journalism that we often sorely miss in the Gulf

There’s no limit to the respect I have for good journalists. These people can toil away for weeks and months on a story, digging for a piece of information or a lead that will result in the next big story. We aren’t blessed with a great deal of original breaking news in the Gulf region; much of what there is out there is, I’ll admit, news which companies want to release to the media.

It’s refreshing to see news which isn’t essentially public relations, a story which has been diligently worked upon by an investigative journalist. One piece piqued my interest this week, the news of how the IT giant Apple has been granted an exemption from the UAE’s foreign ownership laws to fully own its operations in the UAE. The piece was written by Bloomberg’s Matthew Martin.

The piece is a public interest story which I’m sure Apple would not have wanted to be published and which, unsurprisingly, Apple didn’t respond to, though I’m told they had ample time to do so. As the doyen of modern journalism, Lord Northcliffe, said: “News is what people do not want you to print. All the rest is advertising.”

What I particularly like about such practices is the debate that it engenders, and how it gets people talking. For me, the story leaves me with a host of questions that Apple and the country’s authorities need to address for the benefit of the wider business community. Let’s hope we see more investigative journalism being practiced in the Gulf region. Goodness knows we need it.

Stepping into the Continent’s Political Minefield – Etihad’s Independence Day faux-pas

When I was growing up and in the Gulf, I was often told by my father, “don’t talk about three things.” Those three things were politics, religion and sex. One was to never go against this cardinal rule. Of course, rules are made to be broken. But there’s a difference between when an individual does this, and when a corporation gets it wrong.

The past couple of days are important for our friends from the Asian sub-continent. The 14th of August is the commemoration of Pakistan’s independence from the British Empire. The very next day, the 15th of August, is symbolic for Indians as the date of India’s independence. Both countries are neighbors, but due to history and politics their relationship hasn’t always been neighborly.

Etihad stepped into the political minefield yesterday. The national airline was ostensibly trying to do the right thing by reaching out to Indian nationals and wishing them a Happy Independence Day. Over and above the emotional aspect of the occasion, the move makes perfect sense – Etihad has a sizable stake in the Indian airline Jet Airways, and Indians make up over a third of the UAE’s population. The post, on Etihad’s LinkedIn page, should have been welcomed by all.

Etihad's Happy Independence Day message to India... It's a shame Etihad forgot to do the same for Pakistan the day before.

Etihad’s Happy Independence Day message to India… It’s a shame Etihad forgot to do the same for Pakistan the day before.

However, Etihad forgot one thing. They hadn’t posted the same for Pakistan the day before. Reading through the comments and it’s clear that the Pakistani nationals have found umbrage with Etihad’s faux-pas. While the majority of responses are positive, those from Etihad’s Pakistani national followers speak for themselves.

Etihad's move to wish well to India and not to Pakistan for their respective Independence Days didn't go down well with the airline's Pakistani fans

Etihad’s move to wish well to India and not to Pakistan for their respective Independence Days didn’t go down well with the airline’s Pakistani fans

It’s an easy mistake to make in a country which is home to over 130 different nationalities, but when you consider that Pakistani nationals make up a sizable percentage of the UAE’s population (probably 10 to 15 percent), plus the history between the two nations, maybe Etihad would have been best advised to either go all in or not wish anyone a Happy Independence Day. As is, a simple omission can lead to the loss of both business and reputation among a key segment of the population.

How to control the message Egyptian style

Us communications professionals think that we  control the message. In Egypt, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

The below image has been circulating on Facebook for a couple of days now. It’s supposedly clips from random street interviews with Egyptians for one TV station in Cairo. But, as you sharp-eyed lot may have noticed, this is either the same man or Egyptian men all look the same.

As the saying goes, if you want something doing right then do it yourself. And this channel obviously doesn’t want the wrong message getting out.

 

Old News, New News: The strange tale of how the ten-year old drowning daughter story was reported as recent news

The Daily Mail was one of several UK-based publications to fail to fact-check the original story which was published in Emirates 24/7

The Daily Mail was one of several UK-based publications to fail to fact-check the original story which was published in Emirates 24/7

One could be forgiven for thinking it’s funny news season here in the Gulf. One story from Dubai’s shores went global this week, the tale of how an Asian father who prevented Dubai lifeguards from saving his drowning daughter, claiming she would be dishonoured if she was touched by strange men, has been arrested and prosecuted by authorities after his actions led to the death of the 20-year-old girl.

The piece was reported by the UAE’s English-language portal Arabian Business, after a post in the English daily Emirates 24/7. The story, a harrowing tale of how a young woman drowned because her father would not let the male lifeguards touch her, made headlines around the world, and was carried by the UK’s the Daily Mail, the Telegraph, the Metro and Sky News. Here’s the piece from Arabian Business.

An Asian father who prevented Dubai lifeguards from saving his drowning daughter, claiming she would be dishonoured if she was touched by strange men, has been arrested and prosecuted by authorities after his actions led to the death of the 20-year-old girl, Emirates 24/7 reported.

“The Asian father took his wife and kids to the beach for picnic and fun. The kids were swimming in the beach when suddenly, the 20-year-old girl started drowning and screaming for help,” Lt. Col Ahmed Burqibah, Deputy Director of Dubai Police’s Search and Rescue Department, told the website as he recounted the incident, which took place on a Dubai public beach.

“Two rescue men were at the beach, and they rushed to help the girl…. The father was a tall and strong man. He started pulling and preventing the rescue men and got violent with them. He told them that he prefers his daughter being dead than being touched by a strange man.”

“This is one of the incidents which I cannot forget. It shocked me and many others who were involved in the case,” he added.

The actions of the father resulted in the death of the young woman. The father was subsequently arrested for preventing the lifeguards from doing their job and aiding in the death of his daughter.

“He was prosecuted and sued by the concerned authorities,” Lt. Col. Burqibah confirmed.

Unfortunately, whoever picked up the piece from Emirates 24/7 didn’t see one small but pertinent piece of information from the original story.

Speaking to Emirates 24|7, Lt. Col Ahmed Burqibah, Deputy Director of Dubai Police’s Search and Rescue Department, recounting some of the worst incidents he had encountered in his tenure, said that this incident took place at a beach in Dubai.

The mistake was first picked up by the Guardian’s Media Monkey blog. The blog’s writer delighted in having a dig at the publications which had failed to fact check and republish the story as if it were a recent event.

When news editors across the land facing a slow news day on Monday saw the story of a father who let his daughter drown in Dubai because he “didn’t want strange men touching her”, they surely couldn’t believe their luck.

The Mail, Telegraph, Metro and even Sky News all jumped on the story, which came via Agence France Press.

However, Monkey is told that classifying the story as “news” might be stretching it a little.

Apparently the article – which originated on the website Emirates 24/7 – was from an interview in which lifeguards were asked to recount the strangest things that had happened to them. As someone who bothered to check out where it came from tells Monkey: “They mentioned this case of the Asian man who prevented his daughter’s rescue, but, and here’s the catch – it was from 1996.”

Perhaps it’s a case of any old news will do … at least when there isn’t much news at all.

The Gulf’s media is often criticized for not getting the facts right or forgetting to fact-check. But, it seems that even media outlets which are supposed to operate to a different standard can often fail to properly do their homework in the chase for a story which confirms their stereotypes of the region.

I’m now waiting for some journalist looking for a heart-wrenching scoop to pick up on the Cops save boy… villagers kill him with ‘love’ piece, again from Emirates2 4/7.

PS I’m not even going to go into the piece written by Arabian Business which poses the question ‘Does Dubai need more female lifeguards, in light of recent beach tragedy?’ How is this still online?

Social media crises – Lebanon’s Fransabank and the email banning employees from attending Friday prayers

A second post this week focusing on social media and the digital world. And, similarly to the STC story, this article is also about a crisis. However, the background to what happened with Lebanon’s Fransabank is different to that of the public backlash against STC and its alleged poor customer service.

On the 22nd of July a picture began to circulate on social media channels of an email allegedly sent from an administration assistant banning male employees at Fransabank from going to Friday Prayers. A little context here for those who don’t know Lebanon. Unlike in the rest of the Middle East, Lebanon’s weekend is Saturday and Sunday and not Friday. For Muslims, the weekly communal prayer is held on a Friday at noon, and according to Lebanon’s constitution regarding freedom of religion all Muslim employees have the right to attend Friday prayers during their working day.

The connotation behind the alleged email was that male Muslim employees were not returning back to work after their prayers. You can see a screenshot of the email below.

This is a copy of the email allegedly written by a Fransabank employee and then leaked to the net

This is a copy of the email allegedly written by a Fransabank employee and then leaked to the net

As with many other religious issues in Lebanon, a country that is home to a complex mixture of religions and ethnicities, the email set off a storm of commentary on Facebook in particular. The issue reached back to Fransabank and their communications team acted to take control of the situation.

On the same day they issued a statement, in the form of a letter in Arabic, reaffirming respect for all of their employees and their religious duties. In addition, the letter (which is a fairly long crisis statement), also noted that the email was not authorized to be sent by the Bank (which would imply that the email was sent by an actual employee).

This was the first response from Fransabank on the email leak.

This was the first response from Fransabank on the email leak.

All well and good you’d think, but it didn’t stop there. Unfortunately, the first statement was signed but no one knows by whom as there was no name underneath the signature. Secondly, the letter was printed on a plain piece of A4 rather than a Fransabank letterhead. Cue the second letter, which you can see below.

Which was followed by a second statement from Fransabank, this time on an official letterhead

Which was followed by a second statement from Fransabank, this time on an official letterhead

There are obvious lessons here for all of us in communications. Firstly, get your internal communications right and make sure that your employees are aware of your values and your obligations. Legally, no employee should have shared an email regarding stopping their colleagues from performing their religious duties. From the perspective of values, would any Muslim employee want to work at an institution that doesn’t respect their right to pray on a Friday? While there were allegations of employees not returning to work after prayer, was such a response the right reaction? If values and compliance were communicated internally well and the issue of non-attendance handed in a different manner, maybe the email would never ever have been written, let alone leaked via social media.

Secondly, the response. Kudos to the Fransabank team for responding promptly on the same day after becoming aware of the issue (one question I have is how did they come across the original email post). But was the response adequate? Was a letter the right way to do it, especially a letter with no name attached and which is not printed on the bank’s letterhead? Could the team have responded differently, through a video message from a senior executive or a briefer holding statement that goes to the core of the issue about respect for religion and respect for their employees’ right to pray on a Friday?

The Fransabank story is another reminder that social media can bite you at any time. Every employee will have access to the internet, if not on their company computers, then through their mobile phones. Every employee will also have access to a camera, thanks to those same internet-enabled phones. Any content can be uploaded which can harm a person’s reputation. Was Fransabank ready for the crisis? And are you ready if something similar leaks online?

How Saudi’s consumers took on Saudi Telecom and influenced the Government – مطلب شعب stc الثورة ضد

The hardest part of the digital world is knowing where the tipping points are – it’s relatively easy to work out when things are going against your brand either in the traditional press or on television. The coverage builds gradually (unless there’s a crisis) and you have time to think and respond.

The digital world has completely changed the rules however. There doesn’t need to be a trigger anymore. And so was the case at the end of Ramadan in Saudi, where unhappy customers of Saudi Telecom Company vented their frustration at the slow connection speeds as well as the cost of the service.

Using the hashtag مطلب شعب stc الثورة ضد, which essentially translates as ‘the people demand a revolution against STC’, Twitter users shared thousands of Tweets on their thoughts and demands. Many of the visuals were created by consumers who effectively used home-designed visuals to tell their story.

The hashtag, which included over 100 thousand tweets and was one of the top five trends worldwide on the 17th and 18th of July, also resulted in a direct action, a call to boycott STC and turn off phones for several hours on a pre-agreed day, with expected losses of 10 million Riyals.

While STC didn’t respond during the campaign, Saudi’s Minister of Telecommunications Dr Al Suwayyel had previously tweeted that he’d follow up on the issue of poor services in the Kingdom’s telecommunications sector. With the hashtag and the campaign gaining global attention, it’s clear that Saudi consumers will continue pushing for reforms.

Saudi's Minister for Telecommunication, Dr AlSuwaiel, has previously tweeted about the need to improve services in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi’s Minister for Telecommunication, Dr AlSuwaiel, has previously tweeted about the need to improve services in Saudi Arabia.

The question is, will this consumer activism spread to other areas of the economy or other parts of the Gulf? Despite the poorly received Etisalat Challenge campaign and the backlash against Qtel in 2010, there’s been no consumer demand to reduce prices in other Gulf markets. Will other groups follow in the wake of Saudi consumers and demand better service through mediums such as Twitter?

One other question for you. Is there a harder job than that of a social media manager for a telco in the Gulf. You tell me.

Discrimination, Verbal Assaults and the Internet – is the UAE doing more harm than good to its brand?

Is the UAE risking its well-earned reputation as a country that we all love by arresting and jailing those who fall foul of its legal code when alternatives are available to resolve conflict?

Is the UAE risking its well-earned reputation as a country that we all love by arresting and jailing those who fall foul of its legal code when alternatives are available to resolve conflict?

There’s never a dull moment when it comes to local dramas. For years we’ve had cases of messy divorces, affairs and other issues which have spilled into the local media here in the UAE. However, these soaps have been superseded thanks to a glut of new laws (or a stricter implementation of existing laws) relating to personal rights and freedom of speech.

Only this week, there have been two cases which have made regional headlines. The first has been the arrest of a man at Abu Dhabi Airport for what has been best described as a rant after he missed his connecting flight. I’ll quote from the article in the English-language newspaper Emirates 24/7:

Emirati Police recently arrested a British citizen of Indian origin for allegedly insulting security personnel, the airline’s employee and the UAE, using obscene words, after he missed a connecting flight from Abu Dhabi.

He missed a connecting flight from Abu Dhabi to India caused by delays of his earlier flight from Heathrow to Abu Dhabi.

Lieutenant Colonel Fares Al Bakiri from CID, Abu Dhabi Police, who is heading the investigations, explained that the incident took place a week ago when the traveler arrived at Abu Dhabi International Airport on a delayed flight from Heathrow Airport resulting in missing the connecting flight from Abu Dhabi to India. He started swearing at the airline’s employee, and blocked the passengers’ queue behind him, insisting to board his connecting flight although the gate was closed and the aircraft is about to take off.

The second story this week involves the first case brought under the UAE’s new anti-discrimination law. Aimed at making hate speech a legal offence, the law imposes a jail term up to 10 years and a fine of between 50,000 dirhams to two million dirhams on any person or group causing offense or aiming to create discord in the country. To get back to the case, here’s the story from the English-language daily The National:

A high-ranking Dubai security chief has launched a criminal complaint against a Saudi writer under the new law against hate crime.

Lt Gen Dhahi Khalfan, deputy chief of police and general security, accuses the writer, Dr Mohammed Al Hadif, of spreading hatred of the UAE on social media.

“We are organising a case now to pursue him, according to the new law,” Gen Khalfan said on Twitter. “Criticism is one thing and hatred is another thing. The case has been filed, Al Hadif is wanted, and it’s time to try him in court.”

Gen Khalfan, the former Chief of Dubai Police, has previously accused Dr Al Hadif of being a member of an organisation linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The writer has been a vocal critic of the UAE’s involvement in the Saudi-led coalition to defeat Houthi rebels in Yemen, and of the UAE’s relations with Iran. Last year, Saudi Arabia banned him from using Twitter because of his support for the Brotherhood and for the reinstatement of the former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi.

The law criminalising all forms of discrimination on the grounds of religion, caste, creed, doctrine, race, colour or ethnic origin was enacted on July 20.

Penalties for those convicted range from six months to more than 10 years in prison and fines from Dh50,000 to Dh2 million.​

To repeat, the defendant isn’t in the UAE, but rather Saudi Arabia. And my assumption is that he’s speaking or airing his views from Saudi Arabia which is outside of the UAE’s jurisdiction.

As a global hub, the UAE has done brilliantly at carving out a reputation as a business-friendly country which welcomes all who want to invest and live in the country. However, with other recent cases in mind, is the UAE at risk of damaging its own hard-earned reputation as the place to be by making examples of individuals in difficult circumstances or who are outside of their own jurisdiction?

I can imagine that we all would be peeved after missing our connecting flight, while I can’t help but think that it’s better to engage proactively with those who share different views rather than take them to court, especially if they’re not in my jurisdiction when they commit a crime which the other country made not consider to be a crime.

While the law is the law, I can’t help but feel a dollop of common sense wouldn’t go amiss here, especially if the UAE is to continue its brand building project to shape in our minds the image of a country where we all want to be in, live and support. Are these cases doing more harm than good to the UAE’s reputation, and should we all be more forgiving when it comes to such cases where a touch of empathy would help to resolve the situation.

What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear them.