Mass firing at UAE newspaper raises question of censorship

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The story about high fuel prices was safe, editors agreed, even under the strict press laws of the United Arab Emirates.

Instead, it unleashed a firestorm at Al Roeya newspaper in Dubai. Within days, top editors were interrogated. Within weeks, dozens of employees were fired and the print paper declared dissolved.

The newspaper’s publisher, Abu Dhabi-based International Media Investments, or IMI, said Al Roeya’s closure stems only from its transformation 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 gas prices.

Their accounts, given on condition anonymity for fear of reprisals, show the limits of speech in the autocratic nation that tightly controls its domestic media. Self-censorship is rife among journalists at local outlets expected to provide a stream of good news in the UAE, which advertises itself as a globalized destination attractive to tourists, investors and Western media companies.

“The UAE touts itself as liberal and open to business while continuing its repression,” said Cathryn Grothe, a Middle East research analyst at the Washington-based group Freedom House. “Censorship is rampant, online and offline. ... It limits the work that journalists are able to do.”

IMI declined to comment on the substance of the story published, just weeks before Al Roeya’s announced closure. The company stressed its plans to launch CNN Business Arabic capped monthslong 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 soccer club Manchester City. IMI’s major outlets include The National, an English-language broadsheet newspaper, and Sky News Arabia.

While Al Roeya hewed to the UAE’s official line, its pages provided in-depth business news.

The story that staffers say set off the crisis at the paper came together earlier this summer, when high prices were the talk of the town. Unlike its neighbors, the oil-producing UAE has phased out fuel subsidies. Citizens accustomed to cheap gasoline and cradle-to-grave welfare felt the sting after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine pushed up oil prices.

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. Some reportedly even got extra fuel tanks fitted on their vehicles.

The story spread like wildfire on social media on June 2 — especially the anecdote about cross-border fuel fill-ups. Within hours though, the article was deleted from the website and never made it to print.

Several employees involved with the article were summoned to the office days later. They were suspended from work and faced extensive questioning from IMI and Al Roeya representatives and a lawyer about every step and person involved in the story’s creation, editing and publication, according to those familiar with the events.

A week later, the group was given a choice: resign with additional benefits or be terminated and face possible repercussions. Those who signed a resignation letter promised not to disclose anything about the reasons behind their dismissals or criticize the publication, according to a copy of one such letter obtained by the AP.

Hours after the publication of this article, IMI responded with an additional statement saying that said such “non-disclosure agreements are not a way of silencing people but in fact used in all business environments.” It also said that “any meetings that would have happened regarding the fuel story … would have been in line with HR policies to address any misinformation that might impact the credibility of the publication.”

The eight compelled to resign included top editors. Morale plummeted.

Over a week later, IMI CEO Nart Bouran visited the newsroom for an all-hands meeting.

Going into the meeting, the remaining staffers had no reason to fear for their jobs, according to some with knowledge of the internal discussions at the newspaper. They said senior managers at IMI had assured staff over the past year that their jobs were safe as the paper’s editorial focus shifted primarily to business coverage.

Instead, Bouran declared the dissolution of Al Roeya and the imminent launch of the Arabic-language business outlet with CNN. At least 35 employees lost their jobs in a single day, those with knowledge said. Others said dozens more on top of that were dismissed, with severance pay.

IMI did not respond to repeated questions about how many people it fired. Profiles on jobs website LinkedIn suggest some 90 people had been working at Al Roeya.

The paper has kept a skeleton staff to update its website until the launch of CNN Business Arabic, people with knowledge of the matter said.

“This case (of Al Roeya) sounds part and parcel of the general repressive environment,” said Grothe from Freedom House. “It has a chilling effect.”

While some foreign journalists have the security of returning home to countries that support press freedom, Arab journalists who form the backbone of the country’s local media remain wary of jeopardizing their residency status, which is tied to their jobs.

Al Roeya printed its final issue on June 21 with the headline: “A new promise, A renewed era.” CNN Business Arabic is set to launch by the year’s end.

IMI described Al Roeya’s transition to CNN Business Arabic as long-planned, saying that the shift “unfortunately necessitated some redundancies.” It denied the paper’s closure was “connected in any way with the editorial output of Al Roeya.”

When asked about the firings, CNN spokesperson Dan Faulks referred the AP to IMI’s statement, and did not elaborate.

Mohamed al-Hamadi, the head of the UAE’s state-backed journalist association, said the group “provided the required support” to dismissed journalists and backed IMI’s description of the firings.

The upheaval recalled other dramatic episodes that have rattled the UAE’s local press in recent years. In 2017, the government temporarily banned Arabian Business magazine from publishing after it reported Dubai courts were liquidating dozens of failed real estate projects stemming from the 2009 global financial crisis.

The downturn, drawing a slew of negative headlines about Dubai’s debt crisis, caused the UAE to tighten its media laws. The country’s crackdown on online dissent then peaked in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, which were kindled by economic discontent.