This month we’ve been treated to not one but two regional forums focusing on the media sector. First we had the Abu Dhabi Media Summit. Not to be outdone, Dubai held the second edition of the Emirati Media Forum (EMF). The words above were the highlight of the event, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, spoke about the need for there to be more nationals in the media sector.
Reinforcing the message, UAE Minister for State and Chairman of Sky News Arabia Dr Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber spoke on the need for the country’s media to, as Gulf Today put it, become proactive and anticipative, provide deep analysis and interpretation for the current events, carry its social and cultural responsibilities, deliver our message and voice to the world and reflects our sound peaceful culture.
“Over the past years, UAE media has registered many successes and achievements and we need to adopt a balanced and objective strategy that shall contribute in enhancing and bolstering UAE creditability regionally and internationally.”
“When I call for a proactive role, I do not mean exaggeration but rather I call upon our national media to be an icon for ethics and professionalism.”
As a former journalist in the UAE and someone who has dealt extensively with media across the Gulf, the country doesn’t lack for journalists or publications. However, the vast majority of journalists are expats. Even on the Arabic side, most of the media are from Egypt, Jordan or Lebanon.
Whilst it could be argued that the media industry in the Gulf isn’t respected or held in the same regard as in other geographies such as Europe or America, most of the countries in the region have a high percentage of nationals working as journalists – most of the Arabic-language journalists in Saudi are locals, while Bahraini journalists include the head of the local AP bureau. Kuwait has the most lively political publications, which are mostly fueled by local columnists and writers. If countries like Bahrain and Kuwait, two countries with national populations roughly the size of the UAE, how can the UAE promote media among their nationals? Here’s a couple of ideas to get nationals more engaged in the media:
1) Encourage critical thinking and debate – it’s probably no surprise that Kuwait and Saudi have the largest number of local writers, thanks in part to debates around issues such as governance, politics and other issues which matter to local communities. The greater the range of views and opinions that are on offer locally, the greater the public engagement with that media. Conversely, the greater the degree of monotony the less interest there is in the media.
2) Support an independent press – there’s some confusion in the region in terms of what the media is and what its job is. As many media outlets are government owned, they’re often seen as a voice for the authorities. Independent media are generally viewed as more credible, more likely to take on vested interests and promote investigative journalism. Independent media help to promote a strong civil society that in turn promotes transparency and ethics.
3) Engage nationals from a young age – there are some up-and-coming young Emiratis in the media sector who are producing great work. They’re the exception however. Most of the nationals in the media are older and occupy higher positions. We need young role-models for today’s Emirati students to follow, role-models who will tell of the long days, of the persistence on chasing a lead, and of the exhilaration in scoring a scoop.
As was touched upon at the Emirati Media Forum, the Internet is disrupting traditional media. In America dozens of newspapers have had to close shop due to our changing media consumption habits. In a world where stories are broken and shared virally online, many are arguing that traditional media is not needed as it has been for decades. I disagree. Good local analysis can put any news story in context. This is where a strong press plays a role.
For a country that wants to be the first in everything it does, the UAE needs to look again at the local media and ask where is the country’s Al Jazeera, and where are UAE journalists who can be compared to the likes Saudi presenter Turki Al Dakhil, Bahraini editor-in-chief Mansour Al-Jamri, and Kuwaiti journalist Mohammed Al-Sager, all of whom are well respected, famous figures in the media industries in their home countries and abroad.
If the UAE wants a strong media presence and aims to attract more UAE nationals into the sector, then there has to be a shift towards a strong, empowered media that can tell the country’s story through its own words. A mature media that can speak on its own behalf, that has a reputation for holding others to account, and which strengthens local communities can only be good for everyone in the country, most of all its nationals, and will help to attract young nationals who want to support their country’s development as well as be involved in what is one of the most exciting jobs anyone can do.
I’m going to end this piece with a quote from the Columbia School of Journalism, of what media can do for a country.
Journalism exposes corruption, draws attention to injustice, holds politicians and businesses accountable for their promises and duties. It informs citizens and consumers, helps organize public opinion, explains complex issues and clarifies essential disagreements. Journalism plays an irreplaceable role in both democratic politics and market economies.
For those in the industry, I’d love to hear your feedback.