BEIRUT

Middle East

Media professor thrown out of UAE after calling for reform

BEIRUT: Thrown out of the UAE this summer with no explanation, journalism professor Matt Duffy believes his criticism of the country’s media laws, vocal support for free speech and authorities’ increasing fears of Arab Spring contagion may have been behind the move. His wife, Ann Duffy, who worked in educational policy for the Abu Dhabi Education Council, had already had her contract terminated, also with no explanation provided, in June.

“When you live in a country like the UAE, and I think probably most Gulf countries, these kinds of stories are pretty common. You know people suddenly being dismissed with no explanation, so we were always kind of aware that something like that could happen. But we were surprised,” Duffy said in a Skype interview with The Daily Star.

Duffy, who had taken a position as assistant professor of communications at Zayed University in 2010, has been told that both the university provost and Higher Education Minister Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak had tried unsuccessfully to appeal the directive to have his contract terminated, and that the order had originated from “outside the organization.”

A columnist for Gulf News, Duffy had called for a revamp of the UAE’s media laws and for journalists to act ethically, and cautioned against Bahrain’s government regulating social media.

However he had grown increasingly cautious since his arrival in the UAE, especially, he says, after the arrest of the UAE Five on charges of insulting the president, vice president and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed al-Nahyan. The activists, who were arrested in April 2011 but later released after a presidential pardon repealed their sentence, were accused by state media of being religious extremists and Iranian spies.

“Those guys were ... secular, one of them was an academic, he had taught at the Sorbonne in Abu Dhabi, and they were democracy advocates, they really were just advocating a change in the way the government worked: They wanted more voting, more representation, which is actually what the UAE constitution calls for. It calls for an eventual shift to democracy,” Duffy said.

Whereas he had been initially critical of the local Arabic media coverage of the UAE Five trial, after the arrest of more people, also labeled Islamists, Duffy began to self censor.

“I toned down my commentary as it was whispered to me that this was just an area you don’t want to get involved in,” he said.

“I thought there was no sense being too provocative ... So I might once in a while tweet something about the local coverage of these Islamist arrests, but I didn’t go into any kind of detail.”

Constantly trying to navigate the security services’ red lines on the limits of what constituted unacceptable topics for debate, Duffy said this ambiguity could be seen as a deliberate policy by the country’s security services.

“If you’re ambiguous it really makes people very cautious. And if self-censorship is what you’re aiming for, then ambiguity is really going to help with that.”

Duffy and his family have now returned home to Atlanta, Georgia, in the U.S., where he is continuing to write a book about media laws in the UAE.

“There is currently no book which states what the law is in the UAE. And the reason there isn’t [a book] is because no academic has felt secure enough to write that book,” Duffy said.

As with media laws across the region, those in the UAE have many deficiencies, he added.

“They provide few, if any, protections for journalists to practice journalism. Instead they provide prohibitions, directives, things that journalists cannot do. So a typical media law in the UAE is that journalists may not damage the nation’s image.”

This sort of law, the former professor added, is “an incredibly broad directive and really it could squelch 85 percent of good journalism.”

Whereas when he arrived in the country with his family in 2010, Duffy felt it to be progressive in its approach to media freedoms, since the start of the Arab Spring in early 2011 he believes the country is heading backward.

“The Arab Spring really changed everything,” he said.

Countries such as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, which have already experienced uprisings, are opening up to varying degrees, he says, but Duffy adds: “I see worrying signs in Jordan and certainly Oman, and Saudi Arabia has gone backward.”

“I think that at the end of the day it sort of depends on how you choose to see the world.”

“Do you trust that technology is going to lead to improvements and that more communication is better and expression is good or do you see it as an unstable force?”

Those not yet affected by widespread protests are fearful of revolutionary contagion, he said.

“They see all of this unrest in all of these countries and they are very worried and what they are aiming at are agitators, people they think would agitate the population and call for any sort of change.

“And I think that I represented a source of potential agitation,” he added.

“At the end of the day, journalism is agitation. You are calling up issues, pointing out issues that perhaps need to be solved.

“I can kind of understand where they’re coming from, but I don’t agree with it. I think that good journalism helps societies by pointing out problems that need to be solved and ways that they can be solved.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 02, 2012, on page 9.

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