Mass firing at UAE newspaper raises censorship concerns

An Emirati newspaper ran a story about how citizens were struggling with higher fuel prices this summer. Within weeks the paper’s print edition had been shut down and dozens of employees were sacked.

Even under the strict press laws of the United Arab Emirates, the story about high fuel prices at Al Roeya newspaper in Dubai was deemed safe, editors agreed.

But instead within days, top editors were interrogated, dozens of employees were fired and the print paper ceased its operations.

Abu Dhabi-based International Media Investments, or IMI, the newspaper’s publisher, said Al Roeya was closed because it was being transformed into a new Arabic language business outlet with CNN.

However, eight people with direct knowledge of the newspaper’s mass firings told The Associated Press that the layoffs came in the immediate aftermath of the article on the UAE’s petrol prices.

Their accounts were given on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, reflecting the limits set on freedom of speech and local media in the UAE.

Self-censorship is rife

Observers have said that self-censorship is rife among journalists at local outlets.

“The UAE touts itself as liberal and open to business while continuing its repression,” Cathryn Grothe, a Middle East research analyst at the Washington-based group Freedom House told the AP.

“Censorship is rampant, online and offline … It limits the work that journalists are able to do.”

IMI declined to comment on the matter and the company stressed that its plans to launch CNN Business Arabic came after months of negotiations.Al Roeya, Arabic for “The Vision,” was founded in 2012 and rebranded by IMI three years ago to provide local and global news to Arab youth.

IMI is owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the billionaire brother of the UAE’s president who also owns British football club Manchester City. IMI’s significant outlets include The National, an English-language broadsheet newspaper, and Sky News Arabia.

The story that ignited the crisis at the paper was published earlier this year, when petrol prices skyrocketed.

Fuel subsidies phased out

Unlike its neighbours, the UAE has phased out fuel subsidies, leaving residents who were accustomed to cheap petrol stunned after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine pushed up oil prices.

For the article, Al Roeya interviewed Emiratis who had resorted to cost-saving measures.

A few citizens living near the border with Oman, where drivers pay half as much for fuel as in the UAE due to government subsidies, told Al Roeya they crossed into the sultanate to fill up their cars.

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