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.
The paper’s approach falls somewhere between the kind of tough story a foreign correspondent might write and no coverage at all. “There are so many layers to the labor story that it’s not just one big human rights violation,” Bhattacharya says. “You can write about these things, but. . . . There’s always a ‘but.’ ”
Stories that push the boundaries are handled with extreme care. A favorite trick is to write a story about ways the government is trying to solve a problem rather than directly tackling the problem itself. For example, instead of writing about the rash of human traffickers who are kidnapping immigrant women in the UAE and then forcing them into prostitution, The National highlighted the fact that the Dubai police conducted a sting operation that shut down a notorious gang of traffickers. “The solution is always highlighted up top. You have to read down to the bottom of the story to get to the heart of the issue,” Bhattacharya says.
And while Western journalists might dismiss such a roundabout approach, Newland calls it “holistic” and explains that it is the big difference between doing journalism in the West and what is acceptable in the UAE. “The natural default mechanism of the West toward anyone with power is to sift through their rubbish,” Newland says. “Here, the culture doesn’t allow for it, especially where the ruling classes are responsible for taking these people from a life of suffering in the desert to this.