UAE: Media censorship policy lacks consistency

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun Jun 29 13:00:06 UTC 2008

Media censorship policy lacks consistency
Sultan Al Qassemi

Last Updated: June 28. 2008 8:03PM UAE / June 28. 2008 4:03PM GMT
Skype, Orkut, Twitter, Flickr and the Pirate Bay. This is not simply a
list of some of the most popular dot-com sites on the internet; it is
also a list of blocked websites within the United Arab Emirates. When
a web surfer here visits such a site an apology comes on to the screen
explaining that the site has been "blocked due to its content being
inconsistent with the religious, cultural, political and moral values
of the UAE".

If a website is offensive, why apologise for blocking it? In 2003 the
former Minister of Information and Culture called for the scrapping of
internet blocking saying that "no one should impose this censorship on
the citizen", adding that it "reduces the quality and speed of the
internet connection".
The irony is that five years on, internet censorship still exists, but
the Ministry of Information and Culture doesn't. Another irony is that
web censorship in the UAE is actually developed in California by a San
Jose-based firm called Secure Computing, the producer of SmartFilter.
The software is responsible – for better or worse – for the fettered
access that internet users enjoy, or don't, in the UAE.

According to its website, the company "provides a proven database of
over 20 million blockable websites in over 91 categories". Twenty
million sites categorised into fields as diverse as school cheating
information, pornography, anonymisers, general news, violence, dating
and drugs. The clients list also varies, from internet service
providers, state agencies and universities to private firms, allowing
the client to pick which categories to block.

Incidentally, Secure Computing, which promises "very aggressive growth
plans" for the Arab world, provides its services in Saudi Arabia,
Tunisia and China, all classified by the international press freedom
watchdog, Reporters Sans Frontières, as "internet enemies". In China
it won contracts with four of the top five state-owned telecom
companies and doubled its profits recently, just as condemnation of
China's internet censorship increased.

In the UAE, the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, the agency
that contracted with Secure Computing, is responsible for licensing,
investigating hacking and network breeches, promoting e-commerce and
fighting cybercrime in addition to a host of other Herculean tasks.
Because the internet is an extraordinarily dynamic world, sometimes
categorising websites simply as "dating" or "gambling" is not all that
easy. Is Facebook, for example, simply a social networking site even
though it hosts Texas Hold'em poker tournaments with poker chips being
bought and sold for real money?

There is an element of schizophrenia and inconsistent morality within
the censorship methodology in the UAE in general. Orkut, the social
networking site that the TRA has blocked, was unblocked after
thousands of internet users here emailed them, only to be re-blocked
once again.
There are equally explicit pictures on Facebook as there are on Orkut
and yet it is tolerated. Although IsoHunt, Torrentbay and Torrentscan
are blocked, BitSoup and MiniNova are allowed. Surprisingly, the
latter hosts 200,000 downloadable torrents including Hollywood and
pornographic movies (though it is now trying to become more "family
orientated") as well as television shows. Why the bias?

There are numerous other examples about the state of ambivalence that
the UAE censors have displayed. Syriana, for instance, was allowed to
be filmed in Dubai after the script was approved, but was censored
upon release after four months of internal consultations with the
National Media Council. Persepolis, an animated adaptation of a comic
book about a young Iranian girl's coming of age that was condemned by
the Iranian government not only received its regional premiere at the
Middle East Film Festival in Abu Dhabi, it was shown in regular
cinemas throughout the country. This is despite the fact that the book
is banned in the UAE, after initially being sold, and the DVD banned
since its cinema run.

Books have also won their share of censorship, with Gibran Khalil
Gibran's The Prophet repeatedly going through a cycle of being allowed
to be sold, then banned, over and over again. The Harry Potter series
cannot be taught in schools but is allowed to be sold in bookstores
and screened in cinemas. The Hebrew language websites of Israeli
newspapers are blocked in the UAE (along with every other website that
falls under .il, the domain name of the Jewish state); once again,
surprisingly, the English language websites of these papers are
completely accessible to surfers in the UAE. How can a visit to the
website of the Jerusalem Museum of Islamic Art, which is blocked, be
more harmful to our "religious, cultural, political and moral values"
than Israeli ring-wing propaganda?

Nothing should be more important than safeguarding the moral values of
the Emirates, but the censorship issue must be resolved soon; it is as
impossible to be half-moral as it is to be half-pregnant.

Sultan Al Qassemi is a Sharjah-based businessman and graduate of the
American University of Paris. He is the founder of Barjeel Securities
in Dubai and Chairman of the Young Arab Leaders in the UAE

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