The government prevents both local and foreign independent media outlets from thriving by tracking down and persecuting dissenting voices. Expatriate Emirati journalists risk being harassed, arrested or extradited.
Most Emirati media are owned by press groups with ties to the government. The country’s leading daily in terms of circulation is Al-Khaleej, published in the emirate of Sharjah, while the oldest is Al-Ittihad, which is financed by the Abu Dhabi Media group. English-language dailies, such as Gulf News and The National, are also very influential.
The National Media Council regulates the media and hunts down content that criticises government decisions or threatens “social cohesion” – terms vague enough to include any content that does not conform to government requirements. The National Media Council also examines and sanctions foreign media content, which is subject to national standards.
The constitution guarantees freedom of expression but, under a 1980 federal law, the authorities can censor media content deemed to be overly critical of policies, the ruling families, religion or the economy. Journalists are also targeted under the 2012 cybercrime law, which was updated in 2021. In addition, spreading “rumours”, especially about Covid-19, is punishable by a prison sentence as well as a fine.
Like other Gulf countries, the United Arab Emirates has invested heavily in TV channels. Dubai is a significant regional media hub, especially for international news agencies.
There is a tradition of loyalty to the House of Nahyan, the UAE’s founding family, that is linked to the country’s historical development and its emergence as an economic power. Any criticism of its members is condemned and seen as a lack of loyalty. This encourages self-censorship.
As soon as they emit the slightest criticism, journalists and bloggers find themselves in the crosshairs of the UAE’s authorities, who are masters of online surveillance. Offenders are usually accused of defamation, insulting the state or spreading false information designed to harm the country’s image. For this, they risk long prison sentences and are likely to be mistreated.