Reporters on The National’s police desk suspected a cover-up. “This was just incredibly stupid. How could you even logically surmise that?” says Suleman Din, a former reporter at The Star-Ledger in Newark, who was working on The National’s police desk at the time (he has since left the paper). “Even if the boy was going to die of an illness, he shouldn’t have been locked in a bus for four hours.”
Over the next several weeks, reporters advanced the story as they would have at the North American dailies some of them used to work on. They interviewed the boy’s bereaved father; found the bus driver and interviewed him about discovering the boy’s body; questioned school administrators, who continued to say they weren’t to blame; they even wrote a story about the rise in suffocation deaths among young children left in vehicles in the UAE.
The police were furious and threatened to never speak to The National again, Din says. But after the first week, the Ministry of Education’s law department agreed to investigate the school. Less than two weeks later, the ministry fined the school and threatened to shut it down. The school had to climb down from its position, and earlier this year the UAE adopted a law that will require monitors to ride along on school buses, in part to ensure no children are left on board.
It was basic local journalism, for sure, but in the UAE it was revolutionary. And there was a feeling that it was exactly the kind of thing the paper was meant to be doing. “This is a dynamic that is wanted by the powers that be here,” says Newland, “and to a certain extent, that’s why we’ve been able to, not get away with it, but you know what I mean, push things. What we’ve done, perhaps in a responsible way, is to show that the sky doesn’t fall if you approach certain subjects. Everyone says, ‘Don’t go there.’ But then you do and no one bats an eye. It’s almost disappointing.”
Conventional wisdom here is that nobody has attempted to shut The National down because of its heavyweight backing from the most powerful family in the UAE. But The National is a government newspaper. That means Newland must pull back from some stories, like the one about Sheikh Issa. At the same time, he has leeway to do the kinds of stories that have never been done before in the emirates. It’s a balancing act.
What has been watched most closely, perhaps, is the way The National has handled one of the UAE’s toughest issues: migrant labor. For years, the UAE has been able to build so much so quickly by luring hundreds of thousands of poor South-Asian workers with the promise of a good wage. When they arrive, they find the reality of their situation is quite different from what they were led to believe—many are forced to toil in the desert heat for long hours, they’re housed in squalid camps, and paid a fraction of the wages they were promised. The plight of these workers became an international news story in 2006, when Human Rights Watch issued a report alleging hundreds of laborers die in the UAE every year and the workers staged a series of strikes.
The Emirati media barely mentioned the strikes or the report. An op-ed in the Gulf News, one of two leading dailies, dismissed Human Rights Watch’s claims as “outrageous.”
The National hasn’t covered the labor story in a way that would satisfy, say, Human Rights Watch, but it hasn’t backed away from the story either. In May 2008, for example, Suryatapa Bhattacharya, a Canadian reporter who often covers labor issues at The National, chronicled the remarkable story of a laborer who was left for dead at the side of a Dubai highway, highlighting the way migrant workers are so often mistreated. Unconscious, the worker was taken to a government hospital, where a volunteer organization that assists migrant workers in distress found his village in India using a tailor’s label inside his shirt. Bhattacharya and a photographer followed along as the man was reunited with his family.