It’s 11 a.m. in mid-June and ten section editors have crowded around the table at the center of The National’s newsroom on the ground floor of a nondescript office building in Abu Dhabi for the morning lineup meeting. The hushed newsroom is sleek and informal. Reporters don’t sit in cubicles but at long rectangular tables, in front of flat-screen monitors. Six large plasma televisions hang from the ceiling, tuned to BBC World or Al-Jazeera. The air-conditioned chill betrays the Arabian summer outside, where it’s 120 degrees and a sandstorm is blanketing the city. A waiter wearing a yellow vest and a black bowtie delivers coffee and tea, and the meeting begins.
“So, what kind of trouble are we in today?” asks Martin Newland, forty-seven, The National’s editor-in-chief. He spreads his palms on the table and pauses. “About this video,” he says. One of the section editors stops doodling in her notebook and another quietly sets down his teacup. Everyone turns expectantly toward Newland.
Apart from the sandstorm, everyone in the newsroom this morning is talking about how—or even if—Newland will handle the juicy story that The Associated Press put on the wire hours before. Still frames of videotapes have emerged showing a man who appears to be Sheikh Issa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the brother of the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, torturing former business associates with a cattle prod and a spiked plank.
Newland furrows his brow and gazes into the distance. It’s a solid, well-sourced story about a public figure that would make it into most North American and British dailies. But for Newland, a former editor of London’s Daily Telegraph, many of the news impulses that work elsewhere just don’t apply here.
Since it launched in April 2008, The National has attempted to foster a taste in the United Arab Emirates for the kind of tough, high-quality journalism Newland is used to overseeing. And the country’s rulers have afforded him more editorial freedom to do so than they have for perhaps any other editor in the UAE. But the Sheikh Issa story singles out a member of one of the country’s ruling families for serious criticism, crossing what journalists in the UAE have always known as a red line. “We’re picking the battles we want to wage,” Hassan Fattah, Newland’s deputy, tells me later. “We want to win battles that will make the greatest change for the least cost.”
As it turns out, the Sheikh Issa story isn’t one of them. Tomorrow, at least, The National won’t mention the story. “We’ve got to be very, very careful,” Newland tells his team. Until the actual videotapes pop up online or on television, the newspaper won’t publish the allegations. “If this video appears and it’s known, then we have to do something, or we’ll be told not to.”
The editors nod.
“I know you don’t want to hear this,” says foreign editor Michael Jabri-Pickett, “but one of our reporters has got an interview with the guy’s lawyer.”
Newland swears under his breath. “Tell the reporter to back the fuck off. No other people are to work on this story.”
In late 2007, Emirates Media Incorporated (now Abu Dhabi Media Company), a conglomerate owned by a sovereign wealth fund controlled by the rulers of Abu Dhabi, hired Newland to do what nobody had successfully done in the Middle East before: publish a high-quality, English-language, general-interest daily newspaper prominent enough to criticize the government and hold the powerful to account.
The UAE is a loose federation of seven city-states, or emirates, each run semi-autonomously by its own ruling family. And although the UAE is perhaps best known for Dubai, the flashiest emirate, the country’s real wealth is concentrated here in Abu Dhabi. Home to just under a million people, it’s one of the world’s top oil producers and the world’s richest city-state. Like many of its Middle Eastern neighbors, the UAE has never welcomed the sort of journalism that The National is doing. It’s a thirty-six-year-old absolute monarchy with a dismal record on human rights. In 2008, Reporters Without Borders ranked the UAE the sixty-ninth worst country in the world when it comes to press freedom.