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Analysis: Broadcasters welcome in Dubai, but not their domestic politics

BBC Monitoring

Analysis by Steve Metcalf of BBC Monitoring on 20 November

Since it opened in 2001 Dubai Media City has become a major hub for regional and international media. According to a recent report in the Saudi newspaper Al-Madina, 22 per cent of the 370 Arabic satellite TV channels are based in the United Arab Emirates.

News agencies, publications and broadcasters from Europe, America and the Indian subcontinent have also taken advantage of the tax breaks, lavish facilities and other incentives offered by Dubai. Only last weekend the MTV music channel launched its MTV Arabia venture, and the Arabian Business weekly reported on its website that CNN International was planning to establish a regional headquarters in the UAE as part of its global expansion.

But on the same weekend, Pakistan's two leading private news channels, both based in Dubai, were ordered to halt their transmissions at a few hours' notice.

Against UAE policy

The two channels, Geo News and ARY One World, had continued to broadcast from their Dubai studios despite the media curbs introduced in Pakistan two weeks earlier, following the declaration of a state of emergency on 3 November.

Although their cable distribution inside Pakistan had been halted, the channels continued broadcasting by satellite to international audiences and the small number of Pakistanis with satellite receivers.

The director-general of the National Media Council of the UAE, Ibrahim al-Abid, told the country's official news agency, WAM, on 17 November that the decision to shut down the channels had been taken in accordance with the UAE's strict policy of neutrality and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries.

Aminah al-Rustamani, executive director of media at Dubai Media City, told WAM that talks were being held with the channels about the content of their programmes. She sa! id that Dubai Media City was keen to prevent the broadcast of any programmes that undermined the principles and policies of the UAE.

In a statement issued on 20 November, the New York-based Human Rights Watch called on the Dubai authorities to let the two channels resume operations immediately. The statement pointed out the damage the ban was causing to the UAE's status as a regional commercial and media centre, adding that it raised "serious questions about Dubai's viability as a regional hub for the international media".

Moving elsewhere

The Pakistani media, however, were in no doubt about who was really responsible for the ban.

In a statement posted on its website on 17 November, Geo TV said that President Pervez Musharraf had personally intervened to stop its transmissions. Geo added that the government of Pakistan had exerted "excruciating pressure" to halt the broadcasts, without any consideration for the negative impact on the image of what it called "the host country".

Geo News continues to broadcast its programmes on the internet from Dubai. Meanwhile, both Geo and ARY are reported to be considering options outside Dubai, in case they are unable to agree acceptable conditions for the resumption of transmissions.

A report in the Indian newspaper The Hindu on 18 November noted that ARY had been based in London before it moved its operations to Dubai. It quoted Mohsin Raza Khan, director of news at ARY One World, as saying that the company m! ight decide to revive its London operations, although nothing was planned yet.

The Hindu also reported Imran Mir, station manager for Geo TV, as saying: "We're considering alternative arrangements in Asia in case this issue is not resolved."

Relations with Iran

The Pakistani case is not the first time that the politics of neighbouring countries has affected broadcasters, or would-be broadcasters, in Dubai.

In 2005, former speaker of parliament Mehdi Karrubi was one of the candidates defeated by Mahmud Ahmadinezhad in Iran's presidential election. Frustrated with what he saw as the lack of airtime allowed to those with reformist views, he announced plans to launch a television channel called Saba TV.

The intention was to produce the channel's programmes in Iran and then have them sent to Dubai for transmission. But on the day of the planned launch, the person carrying the tapes for the inaugural broadcast was not allowed to disembark at Dubai airport and the whole project was called off.

In an interview with the US-funded Radio Farda earlier this year, Aminah al-Rustamani of Dubai Media City said that the only Persian-language television broadcasting from Dubai was PMC,! which was a music channel. She said that the UAE did not permit any Iranian political publications or broadcasters to operate because it did not want to strain relations between the two countries.

Kidnappers demand closure

In October 2006 Al-Fayhaa (or Al-Fayha), an Iraqi TV channel that had been broadcasting from Dubai since 2004, closed down at short notice. The channel, called after an old Arabic name for Basra and known to be of Shi'i affiliation, said Media City officials had not given any reason for the closure.

But Al-Rustamani, in an interview with Al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper in February 2007, said that the closure had a "strictly contractual procedural background". The channel had successfully resisted earlier attempts to terminate its licence in May 2005 and February 2006.

When a UAE diplomat was kidnapped in Baghdad in May 2006, one of the demands of the kidnappers was the closure of Al-Fayhaa, as well as the withdrawal of the country's diplomatic mission. According to Al-Jazeera TV the kidnappers, calling themselves Banner of Islam, had accused the channel of broadcasting anti-Sunni propaganda. The diplomat was released afte! r two weeks with the demands unmet.

After the eventual closure of its Dubai operation, Al-Fayhaa resumed broadcasting from Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.

Sectarian tensions

One Iraqi television channel has been obliged to relocate in the opposite direction. Al-Sharqiyah, one of the country's most popular private channels, had its offices in Baghdad closed down on 1 January 2007 for allegedly inflaming sectarian tensions.

Al-Sharqiyah is owned by businessman Sa'd al-Bazzaz, who also owns one of the leading Iraqi dailies, Al-Zaman. The channel is seen as representing the Sunni point of view and many of its employees worked for state TV during the rule of Saddam Husayn.

It was the channel's coverage of the execution of Saddam Husayn that provoked the authorities into closing its offices. One of the channel's newsreaders appeared in mourning clothes and referred to him as the "late president". Al-Sharqiyah was also the only channel observed to broadcast mourning ceremonies held to mark Saddam's death and to show protests against the execution.

However, since the channel was already par! tly operating out of Dubai, the closure of its Baghdad offices has not had any substantial effect on its output.

Source: BBC Monitoring research 20 Nov 07

 

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