Dancing with the sheiks: Freedom in a global age

Stephen J.A. WardIn the new “hybrid” globalized societies, such as Dubai, media freedom takes on hybrid forms. Stephen J.A. Ward speaks with James Piecowye, host of the emirate’s strictly monitored English-language radio talk show, about taboo topics and pushing the boundaries of a restricted press.

Around the world, dozens of organizations, from Freedom House to Reporters Without Borders, advance the ideal of a free press and a free citizenry.
    The ideal suggests there is one type of free press to be secured globally: the Western model of a constitutionally protected free press.
    What stands over and against the free press? The typical examples are the media systems found in China or Burma.
    But this thinking is too simple for a global age. The attempt to develop a free press follows different pathways in different regions. New ways of combining media freedom and responsibility are evolving.
    Consider the impressive development of media in the more liberal Arab states, such as Dubai. Rather than quote statistics, I will describe one journalist in Dubai who experiences daily the tensions at work as the Arab media evolve.
“Freedom” within limits

    It is 10 p.m. in Dubai and I am a guest on Nightline – Dubai’s English-language radio talk show. 
    The host is James Piecowye, whose studio is in the radio station DubaiEye, 103.8 FM, part of Arabian Radio Network. The network is one of the largest media conglomerates in the Middle East and owned by the ruling family of Dubai. 
    Piecowye is a Canadian who earned a doctorate in communication from the University of Montreal. He arrived in the United Arab Emirates a decade ago to teach at Zayed University, a college for Emirati women. About four years ago, he decided to try radio broadcasting after deciding that James PiecowyeDubai’s English radio was a “wasteland” of classic rock and pop stations.
    Radio, and especially talk radio, is new to Dubai. Before 1971, there was no locally operated radio in the region. Citizens relied on the BBC, Radio America, and stations in Lebanon and Jordan. When radio was established, a Western style was often adopted.

Each night, on air, Piecowye carefully walks a tightrope between the listeners who call in and the state officials who monitor the show.
    Some boundaries are clear: Topics such as homosexuality, drugs, prostitution, abortion, and religion are taboo. When Dubai World announced recently it was $40 billion in debt, shocking the markets, Piecowye could not discuss the problem on his show. Even discussion of lifestyles, such as dating, is sensitive in a country that outlaws kissing in public. 
    Still, Piecowye manages to provide interesting discussions using officials, scholars, and professors to discuss sanitation, traffic, education, and tonight’s topic – media ethics. He finds inventive ways to discuss sensitive topics.
    For example, he cannot ask callers to discuss the drug problem. But he can invite the chief of the Dubai narcotics division to discuss what the division is doing to combat drugs. In Canada, using only official comments is considered one-sided and, well, boring. In Dubai, it is a way of putting the issue into the public sphere.

Working without a net

    Yet, despite these precautions, any show can be cause for worry. “Offensive” is a terribly subjective word, even in a country with strict laws. “Often, I am never really sure where the line is between offending and not offending, and who will take offensive to what,” said Piecowye.
    Having grown up with CBC Radio, Piecowye adds: “I attempt to bring Canadian journalism values into my show.” He takes on the role of the neutral CBC-like moderator who seeks facts and reasoned discussion.” 
    But here is the kicker: Piecowye works without a tape delay. Offensive comments by guests or his callDubaiers potentially can go straight to air. Luckily, this has happened rarely.

And what happens when officials do not approve of something on Nightline?
    The radio station gets a call from a well-placed person who expresses official displeasure. Such calls are taken very seriously. Violations of media laws in Dubai can be a crime, leading to jail or swift deportation.
    The danger is always there: One seriously offensive broadcast and Piecowye’s decade of service to Zayed University and Dubai could be in jeopardy.
    So, on this night, I and three other international ethicists engage in discussion with Piecowye about global media ethics, the theme of a conference we are attending. We talk in general terms about what global media ethics is, and how media can be made more responsible. We are fully aware that there is no tape delay. No one wants to get Piecowye in trouble by uttering an offensive comment or by raising a taboo topic.
    I find myself, like Piecowye, dancing with the sheiks and their monitoring officials — at least in my imagination. I find myself rephrasing comments before they come out of my mouth. Nonetheless, our group has a lively discussion on media freedom and responsibility, without directly attacking media restrictions in Dubai.

Negotiating freedom

    Piecowye later recounted an on-air anecdote that captured the experience: “One night I was struggling to not say something that couldn’t be said, and I got a text message from a listener. The person wrote, ‘We know what you’re trying to say, so why don’t you just SAY it!’”
    This experience of ‘saying some things but not saying everything’ defines the working conditions of many journalists in Dubai and other Arab countries. It is not full media freedom but it is not insignificant, either. It should not be dismissed as odious self-censorship. It is an important and evolving experiment that runs counter to hundreds of years of tradition.
    Dubai’s Nightline shows that we need a nuanced understanding of how to advance media freedom globally; there is no master plan.
    The evolution of media freedom will depend on the country’s media laws, the culture’s tolerance of free speech, and local definitions of what is appropriate and what is offensive.
     In many countries, journalists will negotiate for increasing freedom, and learn to navigate around limits. In the new “hybrid” globalized societies, such as Dubai, media freedom will take on hybrid forms. 
    There is no guarantee that liberalizing forces will win; and no predicting how far they will advance. There is no saying how this dance will end.
     But Piecowye and other journalists continue to expand the boundaries of media freedom, working pragmatically within the limits of law and society.

Stephen J. A. Ward is the James E. Burgess Professor of Journalism Ethics in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC). He is the founding chair of the Canadian Association of Journalists’ (CAJ) ethics advisory committee and former director of UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism.