As I worked as a reporter in the Muslim metropolis of Dubai I was surprised to find that social media was such an essential tool necessary for gathering daily information on the job, meeting sources, or making contacts.
It was 2010, I had seen the role social media played in the Arab Spring and its importance in sharing information, but this was Dubai – a glittering city with plenty of development, riches and opportunity. I never expected it to be required to gather information in this city.
I’m back home in New Zealand now, and am struck by the simplicity of getting on with the job here in New Zealand. The ease of life and access to information is strikingly simple compared to my job as a journalist in Dubai, which I both loved and hated.
My daily duties at Dubai newspapers were largely the same as any other reporter’s job I’ve had in the past decade. Simply put; manage professional contacts, find new stories, gather the information, identify the angle, then write it up to deadline.
However, the ruling frame-work in the UAE meant gathering information for stories, especially the sensitive or controversial ones, and relying on contacts was often challenging. At times it was near impossible as residents who had been wronged, feared being evicted if they spoke out and were identified.
Credible information was also often impossible to verify because Government sources didn’t want to talk – nor did they have to – or individuals refused to be named for fear they would be kicked out of the country or face repercussions.
This is where the use of social media and being online became so essential as seen in the uprising of nearby Arab countries. However, many Dubai residents would also only talk about injustices in the UEA, a sanctuary by comparison, if they were protected by anonymity and the veil of technology – even when they were the victims. The problem was many residents feared being deported from Dubai, and their chance to earn a lot of money, if they upset the powers that be regardless of the facts.
A lot of my job also involved explaining the basics: how speaking out publicly could help, inform others to stop them getting duped too, or pompt improvements.
Of course, there were other difficulties too – many because the UAE is ruled under a communist regime by the royal family. Each of the country’s seven emirates has a ruler from this family. They are not elected and there are no laws giving the public any right to information about what they decide. It also means there is little accountability, and Government officials, leaders or the royal family were strictly off-limits to the media unless they approved the story.
This was all further complicated because newspapers’ publishing licences are held by the royal family, who decides whether a media publication can operate in the country, or not. Getting a foothold in Dubai, where east meets west, is too valuable for any newspaper owner to jeopardise that.