There are worrying signs in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with suggestions that the authorities are looking to push through a significant change in media reporting under the guise of cleaning up reporting standards in the region. A new 45 article law has been introduced by the National Media Council, which is in effect the government arm for all media issues, which looks set to replace the existing Publications Law that have been in place for 28 years.
There are serious concerns that the region is taking a backward step with regards to the freedom of the press at a time when economies are under serious pressure and property markets in the region continue to spiral downward. While the authorities claim that professional reporting on issues in the region will not be affected by the proposed new regulations there is a suspicion that the government is looking to suppress negative and unhelpful comment which they believe has contributed to the current economic downturn.
What has brought about this change in attitude?
While the main concern of the authorities would appear to be the “inaccurate reporting” of issues in the region there is a suspicion that recent media interest in various banking and property scandals in places such as Dubai has angered region’s government. In what many believe to be a case of trying to repair the image of the region, albeit via very basic and repressive regulations, the main government of the UAE and various local authorities such as those in Dubai are looking to take more control of local media and local news reporting.
If the new regulations move into law there will be a variety of fines handed out to those “misreporting” news, and naming and shaming suspects under investigation before they are given their day in court. There is also a specific clause in the regulations which will see any criticism of the ruling family attract a AED1 million fine for those involved. While the new regulations are still in their draft stage there is speculation that they will soon be fast tracked into law and potentially hamper professional news reporting from the region.
Will the new media laws make a difference?
In public the UAE authorities are claiming these new regulations are just a basic update of the old laws/regulations and they will not impact upon the reporting of negative or positive stories from the region. However, government insiders claim that the sole purpose of the new media regulations is to stifle freedom of the press and reduce the constant flow of negative headlines which are being attributed to the region and especially Dubai.
Rulers in the UAE have historically been a law unto themselves and while more recently they seem to have been more understanding of Western ways and Western cultures this perceived attack on the freedom of the press could have serious implications for economies in the region, property markets and the reputation of the UAE as a whole.
Various attempts have been made to clarify specific points in relation to the proposed regulations but so far there has been little real clarity which effectively leaves open the prospect of large fines for those who do not “promote” the region.
How will this affect property investors?
If you put yourself in the shoes of an international property investor with exposure to the UAE and perhaps Dubai more specifically, why would you continue investing in the region if news reporting was effectively censored and you were perhaps not receiving details of the overall picture?
While many people may point out the development of an online news reporting environment which now covers the world, if the likes of CNN and Reuters for example are not able to use their local contacts to get the “real story” in the region, will their news coverage be complete and accurate?
The fact is that for property investors, and investors in any market, information is the key to the rise and fall in the value of their investments and if they are not privy to information which is readily available on the ground, but unable to be published, there will be difficulties. Would you invest in a company which is only allowed to release positive news even though the underlying situation may be very different to that which is been promoted in public.
Property prices in the region
Many people believe that the various banking and property scandals which have materialised in places such as Dubai are the main reasons behind the proposed changes in media regulations. In many ways the likes of Dubai only came to the attention of overseas investors because of the significant press coverage which the area has received over the last few years, both positive and negative.
The price of a property is based upon the perceived value at the moment and the value going forward, taking into account the economy, finance and the general worldwide situation. If any one of these elements is missing from the equation then the outcome cannot be guaranteed and in many ways investors will be guessing the value of a property at any given time – unless they are local to the region and privy to what is happening “on the ground”.
In the recent past the UAE authorities and in particular those in Dubai have seemingly managed to escape from the shackles of the past and the oppressive regime which many people believed had gone forever. This invasion into the freedom of the press, while possibly justified when taking into account some of the more blatant incorrect reporting of issues in the region, is a serious step backwards for the UAE which had promoted itself as the next big growth market over the last few years.
There is a feeling that in some ways criticism of these proposed laws may be a little heavy-handed at the moment because of the particular economic situation we are in but we will not know exactly what these entail until they are confirmed by the UAE authorities and put into action. Unfortunately, if those affected by the changes have any issues at this point it will be too late because the authorities will have the right to suppress negative comment about the region and the ability to hand out serious fines to those involved.
Even though freedom of the press is a vital part of any developing economy and nation, can we really criticise the likes of the UAE when you see regular claims of bias reporting from the likes of CNN in the US and the BBC in the UK for example?
Is there really a massive difference?