Michael Jabri-Pickett, former Head of Digital Operations at The National, talks to TMN about self-censorship in the media industry and how it can effectively be tackled in the UAE…
“Censorship may come in many forms, but what disappoints most people when the subject is discussed is that there is no grim-faced man walking around the newsroom with a red pen reading over reporters’ shoulders pointing nervously at computer screens or gesticulating at an editor’s page proof demanding a story be cut or killed. What happens is much more subtle. What happens is self-censorship.”
The first question I was invariably asked when anyone learnt I was a Journalist at a newspaper in the UAE was a simple one, “How do you deal with all the censorship?” my response was straightforward, “there is no censorship, or at least none we would think of as what traditional censorship – whatever that looks like – might entail.” Anyone who has read any UAE-based news website for more than a few weeks will laugh at my denial, but truth is – as Lord Byron wrote, “stranger than fiction.”
Censorship may come in many forms, but what disappoints most people when the subject is discussed is that there is no grim-faced man walking around the newsroom with a red pen reading over reporters’ shoulders pointing nervously at computer screens or gesticulating at an editor’s page proof demanding a story be cut or killed. What happens is much more subtle. What happens is self-censorship.
Decades ago, my journalism world was black and white, but I failed to understand the desperately needed nuanced approach essential to survive in a newsroom. Papers are closing, financial resources are evaporating and staff layoffs are constantly happening. If you are a journalist in 2017, finding a way to keep the job you love is an increasingly difficult challenge.
All of which means there are reasons why self-censorship exists. It is not that the boogieman is hiding in plain sight – it is the nervous, gentle soul holding out hope that the profession he has cared so much for will somehow improve. You may believe self-censorship is never right, but you must concede there are legitimate reasons why it exists. The editing process at a newspaper is without mystery, I think. Once a reporter has written his story, it will be edited and edited again and proofread and proofread again. There are several pairs of eyes that look critically at a story before it is published.
Imagine this, a veteran journalist with eight years reporting experience in Dubai puts together a story. He has ten points he wants to include in his article. The reporter knows before he writes a word that two of his points will never be allowed to remain, so he doesn’t even include them. Then the first editor to see the copy takes out another two, the next editor removes one, a proofreader drops one more point because he just isn’t sure and doesn’t want to ask anyone and the next pair of eyes in the chain nixes another one simply because he wants to do his job with a certain amount of zeal. A great story with ten points is published with three. Not a proud moment, but a regular occurrence.
Some might claim I have failed to point out that the reporter and the editors in this hypothetical scenario are simply using their knowledge gained from years of experience in the region. This unfortunately is the standard response intended to silence critics. I will acknowledge that on some occasions certain stories should not be published, but I came across too few colleagues who were willing to discuss the issues.
Newspaper journalists in the UAE know their industry is dying. Many senior newspaper journalists in the UAE know this is quite possibly their last chance to do a job they love in a country that is safe and prosperous. No one wants to leave, so the temptation is to protect what they see as the interests of the UAE. As a result, a newspaper journalist will remove from a story anything that he thinks might not help the country. He will act on his own.
It is human nature to protect your job and self-censorship may be self-preservation. What goes against the fibres in a journalist’s being, however, is the absence of a debate. Discussion leads to ideas and thoughts inspire change. This is how we avoid self-censorship, and I believe this is how we move forward.