Is the media a government tool or an independent voice – thoughts from Abu Dhabi

Freedom of expression or expression of national institutions? We’re still very much in the latter camp in the Middle East (image credit:

There was a fairly low key but important discussion this week in the UAE’s Federal National Council. The body, the closest thing that the UAE has to a parliament, welcomed Shaikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the country’s Foreign Minister, to discuss the issues of the media and the work of the National Media Council, the UAE’s regulatory body for the sector.

The below excerpts are from an article in Gulf News which ran this week. Have a read through the quotes:

The National Media Council came under fire from the House for its “weak role in [the] Emiratisation of the media, dominance of foreign media content and lack of plans to promote the [UAE’s] cultural identity.”

The NMC was also criticised for the lack of coordination between the media outlets and universities, lack of training programmes for journalists and broadcasters, and a failure by media outlets to address concerns of citizens.

The FNC also voiced concern over the UAE’s low ranking in the press freedom index. Ali Jasem, a member from Umm Al Quwain, said the UAE ranked 158th on the Press Freedom Index last year.

Shaikh Abdullah said he expected that the ranking will improve once the new media law is issued with an article that bans jailing journalists for exercising their duties.

Shaikh Abdullah said discussions in the FNC lacked a uniform stand on the issue of freedom of expression.
“Some members demand a higher ceiling of freedom and less control, while others call for censorship, which is confusing,” Shaikh Abdullah said.

Shaikh Abdullah reiterated that the NMC respected the editorial policies of all media outlets operating in the country and that it never intervened in their work or nature of their content.

“The country’s policy is to leave the executive work to the media outlets, whether owned by the local governments or the private sector, so that there will be no contradiction between [the NMC’s] work and theirs,” he added.

Shaikh Abdullah said media outlets are “our partners and they are wholeheartedly contributing to the UAE’s media strategies.

It’s fairly common in the Middle East for the media to be seen as a tool of government policy. The media reiterates the government line and rarely engages in debate. This viewpoint hasn’t changed much despite attempts by global media outlets, newswires such as Reuters and Bloomberg, to write uncensored about a range of social, political and cultural issues.

What’s noticable from the above is that even in a country which is fairly media-friendly by the standards of the Middle East there’s still a view that the media needs to be an instrument of policy which ‘promotes cultural and national identity.’ I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have been raised in a part of the world where a strong, independent media fosters debate, promotes transparency and holds others to account. How far are we from this state of affairs in the Middle East? Your guess is as good as mine. However, in the meantime I’ll keep flying the flag for a media sector that has the teeth to do its job and act as an independent voice for discussion, debate and originality.