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Will Murdoch’s new media outlet bow to UAE’s censorship rules?

June 29, 2016 at 9:00 am

Have you heard of Vice Media? Rupert Murdoch has – in 2013 he called the internet and print publishing upstart a “wild interesting effort to interest millennials” and a “global success.” Not long after, he bought a five per cent stake in what is known as the “hipsters bible”, and his son, James, now sits on its board. The company, which runs dozens of websites and magazines, is said to be at least as valuable as the New York Times.

Last week it was announced that Vice is moving into the Middle East with a major new partnership with Moby Group, an Afghan media company which has also been a long-term collaborator. Together, the companies hope to bring the Vice brand to much of the Arab world, including all the Gulf Cooperation Council states, Jordan, Iran, Lebanon, Egypt and Algeria as well as to Afghanistan.

They will be opening studios and hiring local journalists, providing budgets and training and hopefully unleashing a media revolution which will be both profitable for the company and what they call the “surging youth” of the Arab world.

There’s a catch. Like many international firms with interests in the Middle East – the project is being run out of a swanky new office in Dubai. Their immediate landlords will be Studio City, a major film and production area of the city owned and developed by a company called TECOM Investments. Follow the money and you’ll find this is in turn owned by a major investment fund called Dubai Holdings, which is majority owned by Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates.

The Vice team know the United Arab Emirates well, one of their finest early forays into major documentary projects was Slaves of Dubai”, which investigated in 2009 how the emirate had been built on the backs of impoverished, debt-enslaved migrant workers. You might also have heard of “Bahrain: An Inconvenient Uprising”, which details the tribulations of the Bahraini pro-democracy movement, and how UAE troops helped quash that uprising. A Year of Bloodshed in Yemen recently looked at the activities of UAE and Saudi pilots bombing hospitals and schools in Yemen. In September last year, Vice declared that one of the UK’s “most evil international allies” was the UAE.

It was once hoped that the government-owned English-language daily the National, based in Abu Dhabi, might be a beach-head for free speech into the Gulf. In 2008, the newspaper went to press for the first time – staffed by experienced, highly paid, Western-trained journalists. Articles about Wikileaks, gay rights and the Libyan uprising were soon being suppressed. A former foreign desk editor resigned claiming self-censorship, particularly of stories criticising the royal family, was endemic. “Anyone who went expecting a free press was kidding themselves,” said Keach Hagey in 2013, who wrote for the paper’s business desk before quitting, while a former copy editor said the censorship was “daily and severe”. The paper has been a dismal failure – with dwindling readership and fawning news coverage that is little more than an extension of the government press office.

Vice News is an excellent outfit, and so too is Moby Group. If they can stay the course – it will be a great moment for the Middle East, but a very tricky road lies ahead. Will they bow to the censorship that has scuppered modern media projects in the UAE before? Can they survive in an increasingly paranoid police state, or will they, like the National, start off with grand ambitions before realising that free speech in the UAE is non-existent?

Combined with not wanting to upset the UAE royals (also their landlords), Vice will need to deal with Murdoch. His son is on the board to safeguard their $70 million investment, and if it’s a case of not criticising the Gulf states in order to stay in business, I can’t see the money-mad media mogul making particularly vigorous protestations that media freedom has a higher price than profit. We shall have to wait and see.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.