The possible sale of the "Telegraph" media group, publisher of the British newspaper "The Daily Telegraph," to investors from the United Arab Emirates, one of the worst countries in terms of press freedom, raises deep concern for the "Women Journalists Without Chains" organization.
Since June of last year, The Daily Telegraph, a British newspaper associated with the Conservative Party, has been available for purchase after Lloyds Banking Group acquired it from the debt-laden Barclay family, its previous owners, following a contentious battle with lenders.
According to sources, the Barclay family is reportedly making efforts to regain ownership of the Telegraph Group, potentially with the support of undisclosed Emirati investors. Although details are currently limited, this situation bears resemblance to the sale of Manchester City Football Club to Emirati investors 15 years ago. In that instance, the investors had connections to the Abu Dhabi royal family, and Sheikh Mansour, the owner of the investment group, is the brother of Mohammed bin Zayed, the ruler of the country.
The Daily Telegraph holds significant influence in British political circles, with a history of Conservative prime ministers contributing as writers and two, namely Winston Churchill (as a war correspondent) and Boris Johnson more recently, having served on its staff. The newspaper's impact extends to Westminster, Whitehall, Downing Street, and even British intelligence.
Given the potential influence of the authoritarian Abu Dhabi administration, the thought of the UAE owning the Telegraph raises questions about the newspaper's ability to retain a "editorial laissez-faire" attitude.
An upcoming report by Women Journalists Without Chains, scheduled for publication this month, sheds light on the state of independent journalism in the UAE and reveals alarming levels of editorial interference by authorities in state-owned media outlets, as well as newspapers associated directly or indirectly with government-affiliated entities. The report highlights how the authorities not only restrict journalistic activities but also exert control over the topics discussed by male and female journalists on social media, including their expression of personal opinions.
Women Journalists Without Chains has raised concerns about the UAE leveraging media outlets to enhance Abu Dhabi's human rights reputation, which has faced scrutiny from international organizations and the British press. The report also highlights the media being employed to discredit political adversaries by labeling them as "terrorists" and a threat to the West. Additionally, the United Nations Committee against Torture expressed specific concern in their July 2022 report about accounts of torture and mistreatment directed at human rights defenders and individuals expressing their opinions online in the UAE.
Several significant facts about the press in the UAE are highlighted:
- Unions and independent organizations advocating for the rights of journalists, both male and female, are criminalized in the country.
- There are no laws protecting the confidentiality of sources, allowing the government and security services to request information from any entity, newspaper, or journalist based on their own policies and what they consider as "national security." Furthermore, there is an absence of legislation guaranteeing freedom of access to government information.
- Vague limitations on permissible speech in the country result in extensive self-censorship among journalists, regardless of gender. Journalists often face warnings and threats if they exceed the boundaries of acceptable media coverage. In certain instances, more severe actions are taken, including imprisonment, unfair termination, or a reduction in their roles or responsibilities within their organizations.
- Repression, such as frequent arrests and detention without trial, specifically targeting critics, including social media users, significantly hampers journalistic activities and overall freedom of expression in the country.
- The legal environment in the UAE does not support independent journalism, as media outlets owned or controlled by the state only permit a pro-government perspective. Male and female journalists in the UAE may face charges that carry severe penalties, including life imprisonment or even the death penalty under certain circumstances.
- The UAE's legislation, including the Crimes and Penal Code (No. 31), Law on Combating Rumors and Electronic Crimes (No. 34), and Law on Combating Terrorism Crimes (No. 7 of 2014), criminalizes independent press activities. Criticism of the government or officials in their duties is explicitly prohibited, and penalties are imposed on information sources and those collaborating with journalists. Moreover, the laws extend their reach to criminalize any criticism directed at countries with political ties to the UAE, even if it concerns the journalist's own homeland.
- The impartiality of the Emirati judiciary raises concerns in its treatment of male and female journalists. It lacks independence, operating under the executive branch's authority. Judicial institutions, judges, and legal practitioners face limitations when it comes to criticizing the state. Notably, Muhammad Al-Roken, the sole lawyer representing detained journalists, bloggers, and political commentators, remains imprisoned since 2012 for his professional activities.
- Electronic surveillance is employed by the UAE to engage in spying on journalists, including those working for state-owned media organizations and notable individuals residing outside the country. Matthew Hedges, a British researcher, experienced the consequences of this surveillance as he was initially given a life sentence but was eventually pardoned. Other journalists such as Simeon Kerr from the Financial Times, Gregg Carlstrom from The Economist, Caroline Faraj from CNN Dubai, and Bradley Hope, a well-known American journalist affiliated with The Wall Street Journal in London, have also been subjected to scrutiny.
Hence, the organization "Women Journalists Without Chains" calls upon the Barclay family and the British authorities to cease the process of selling the newspaper and media group to the Emirati authorities, unless they are willing to participate in the reputation laundering that Abu Dhabi will employ through the group in the future, in addition to potential misleading propaganda operations given the behavior of the UAE.
Women Journalists Without Chains calls upon journalists at "The Telegraph" to protest the potential sale deal and safeguard journalistic work and independent journalism from political interference. In the event of a sale to the UAE, journalists, irrespective of gender, should receive guarantees that the new owners will adhere to a policy of "non-editorial interference”.
Additionally, Women Journalists Without Chains demands the UAE to revise highly restrictive laws governing journalistic work within its territories, ensure freedom of opinion and expression, address the state of local press, and release all detainees imprisoned for expressing their views, prior to embarking on expanding their investments in the media sector.
Women Journalists Without Chains
September 19, 2023