United Arab Emirates: When reporters become subservient writers


Public relations departments at private and government entities are controlling media organisations in the country, a group of journalists opine.

By: Mustafa Al Zarooni/khaleejtimes.com

The level of influence exerted by powerful government officials on journalists can be seen in the news gathering process, a group of journalists have said. Some reporters wait for approval from them before filing their reports, or public relations (PR) officers ‘suggest’ questions to reporters that could be addressed to the officials concerned at Press conferences. Print media establishments are pressed to publish the names of the sponsors, and in some cases, the logos of the companies.

Suggestions for credible journalism

> Lay down standards for accepting gifts and awards

> Let reporters have a say in content

> Urge reporters to follow up on news reports

> Greater level of freedom within media organisations

> Criticise objectively

Reporters of different organisations file news reports on one event or conference on the same day, resulting in all newspapers looking the same in terms of content. Journalists cover news on the same beat on a “rotational basis” and exchange news reports.

This, some journalists said, has resulted in the loss of credibility for news establishments. Some journalists criticised government PR offices for “concealing the truth” and stopping reporters from asking direct questions to officials.

PR officials, they said, entice reporters to work for them by showering gifts and money on them. The UAE journalism charter allows gifts, but only in public and “within limit”. Additionally, ‘journalism awards’ held by companies encourage reporters to file positive news stories on them.

“This issue is prevalent in some countries, and some journalists practice it due to their lack of professionalism and experience. PR departments dictate to them what needs to be written and thus, they become the property of the establishment concerned,” said Zahir Al Ali, a journalist.

Way forward

Coordination with PR departments is needed in certain cases, especially for cross-checking information.

“Newspaper establishments have contributed to setting up Press lobbies as journalists are held accountable for missing stories on their beat. This prompts journalists to leak news reports to rival establishments with the hope that the favour would be returned when it comes to beat stories,” Al Ali said.

He suggested that the best solution would be to focus on news reports filed by reporters and do away with Press releases.

The daily follow-up policy of journalists is the problem, he said, as they don’t follow up on news exclusively carried by a rival newspaper.

Press freedom within organisations

A former manger of a public relations and media office, who requested anonymity, explained that the major reason behind the poor performance of journalists in the country is the low level of freedom margin that press houses gives its journalists.

In cases of complaints, he said PR offices handle them in different ways. Most often, they evade the questions or address the editorial bodies to bar a journalist from writing the complaint. He referred to a philosophy adopted by media companies in the country, which pivots on so-called ‘services journalism’ in which advertisements outnumber the media content.

He said editors-in-chief “do not have absolute powers”, a “fact which is familiar within the local Press milieu, and inherited by succeeding editors”. This, he said, has made the local Press lose strength, which in turn, allows government entities and advertisers dictate terms to them.

Media and advertisements, he noted, should move in parallel and never intersect.

Dr Aisha Al Nuaimi, a media professor at the UAE University, attributed poor journalistic practices to two reasons. One is the lack of a professional environment that could enable journalists to play a role in determining the Press content. This issue, she said, requires the reexamining of the Publication and Printing law issued in 1980, which has never been changed since.

Things have changed, she said. For example, there is an information influx in the present period, and the Press environment needs to be upgraded to keep up with it.

The second reason, she said, lies in the way Press institutions are managed. They tend to exaggerate when laying down warnings.

She said the professionalism exercised by some Press establishments has taken a dip, which has made the vocation take a turn for the worse. Such an environment, she said, puts a great pressure on journalists, which contributes in turning them into PR agents instead of being a professional.

Other reasons

Dr Al Nuaimi said there is a defect in the Press here due to the imbalance in the number of Emiratis working in such a key sector.

She said some editors do not care about conveying key matters in a professional way to readers so that the latter could benefit from the information. This makes readers and Emiratis go for other news sources to obtain the information, which in turn, helps these sources become powerful influencers of public opinion.

Journalist Shimaa Al Hanawy referred to the personal relationship between reporters and officials, which prompts the former from criticising the latter. She said a reader is aware that some entities in the country are beyond criticism by the local Press. She stressed the importance of criticising objectively and raising issues transparently.

She called for laying down standards on accepting gifts from government and private bodies, which may play a role in maintaining the credibility and neutrality of news.

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