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Sun 26 Jun 2005 04:00 AM

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My free speech ordeal

SYRIAN JOURNALIST Bassma Al Jandaly thought she was going on an exciting four-day press trip to Greece, courtesy of Qatar Airways. She was checked in, her luggage was being delivered to the plane and she was about to beat the queues at passport control by going through Dubai’s e-gate system. Then, her nightmare started.

My free speech ordeal|~|DEFIANT-200.jpg|~|DEFIANT: Journalist Bassma Al Jandaly is determined to continue writing for Gulf News after her ordeal. Sheikh Al Nahyan ensured all charges against her were scrapped.|~|SYRIAN JOURNALIST Bassma Al Jandaly thought she was going on an exciting four-day press trip to Greece, courtesy of Qatar Airways. She was checked in, her luggage was being delivered to the plane and she was about to beat the queues at passport control by going through Dubai’s e-gate system. Then, her nightmare started.

Bassma’s fingerprints hadn’t been recognised by the e-gate system she had used countless times before and she was being frogmarched towards the airport’s security offices by immigration officials. “I felt like a criminal as I was being led away and I didn’t once look back at the other people who were going on the trip with me — I felt embarrassed,” Al Jandaly, a Gulf News staff reporter of five years told Arabian Business.

At this point 38-year old Al Jandaly still believed a computer glitch was to blame for her predicament. Little did she know that she was about to discover there had been a warrant out for her arrest for over three months.

“Immigration officials at the airport detained me after I asked them to investigate why the e-gate machine could not recognise my fingerprints. I tried to get through the system four or five times and thought to myself ‘it must be broken’,” she explained. “I was taken to the airport security bureau where I thought the problem with my e-gate card or passport would be sorted out. But then I was taken to the airport’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID) office,” she added, her tone becoming more serious.

CID officials then explained to Al Jandaly that Sharjah police had a warrant out for her arrest because of a news story she had written almost four months ago. The warrant had been issued on March 7 and meant she could not — under any circumstance — leave the country and that she would be handed over to Sharjah’s CID unit.

“I was told that Sharjah had issued a warrant for my arrest because of a complaint Sharjah police received about a story that appeared in the Gulf News on February 25 about a man who had been stabbing women in Sharjah,” Al Jandaly emotionally recalled. “A police official said the head of security at Sharjah police had issued the warrant because of the article. They said that the warrant had initially been issued in early March,” she continued.

The story, published under the headline ‘Unknown assailant stabs woman near her home’, stated that a woman (referred to as I.T.) was stabbed in Sharjah earlier in the month. However, Sharjah police advised the woman in question not to speak about the incident until they had found out who was behind the attack.

“It all started because I mentioned one of the victims in the story, who was identified as I.T. The Sharjah police found out who the woman was and asked her why she had leaked information to the press. She told police she had not done this and must have filed a complaint against me at the time,” speculated Al Jandaly.

Sharjah police had earlier warned Al Jandaly and the UAE editor of the newspaper Duraid Al Baik about the article. Dubai’s CID also informed Gulf News in March that Sharjah police wanted to arrest the two after a complaint was made against them over the story.

This led Abdul Hamid Ahmad, editor-in-chief of Gulf News, to write a letter to Brigadier Ali Saleh Al Mutawa, commander-in-chief of Sharjah police, asking for clarification on the issue. In it he said the newspaper would deal with the complaint according to the UAE’s publication laws and issue a correction if the article was incorrect or inaccurate. Gulf News received no response from Sharjah police.

The newspaper then agreed for Dr. Fahd Al Sabhan of the Al Sabhan Legal Group to handle the issue. Sharjah CID officials repeatedly told Al Sabhan’s representatives that no orders to arrest the two journalists had been issued — making the journalist’s arrest even more unexpected.

Al Jandaly’s detention is all the more surprising considering the UAE’s constitution states the country provides for ‘freedom of speech’. However, in practice this is severely restricted as most UAE-based publications are still told what can and cannot be reported — the reason for the strong regulatory and political control of media content in the UAE.

Furthermore, the UAE Printing and Publishing Law, 1980, contains article 81, which states that it is prohibited to publish news that causes harm to the national currency or causes damage to the national economy.

As a result, foreign publications are censored before distribution and the majority of UAE-based journalists tend to practise self-censorship when reporting on certain matters. However, Al Jandaly maintained that she merely reported the facts relating to the Sharjah stabbing story.

“It is ridiculous that a journalist should be detained for something so silly. I feel insulted by what happened more than anything,” she said. “The UAE urgently needs to make changes in publishing laws regarding journalistic freedom because they are very dated laws, which are desperately in need of change,” she claimed.

The world’s oldest global press freedom organisation, the International Press Institute’s (IPI) 2004 World Press Review supports Al Jandaly’s calls for change. It describes how the UAE’s press law “specifically prohibits criticism of the government, ruling families, and friendly governments that threaten social stability under penalty of imprisonment.”

The review adds that “journalists engage in critical investigative reporting on government policy, the ruling families, national security, religion, and relations with neighbouring states only if given at least implied permission to report on such matters. Due to strict control of the media no really challenging articles are ever published by journalists in the UAE.”

As such, restrictions on access, and press laws that bring editorial matters in the realm of criminal law are major handicaps for the media in the emirates. Much has improved over the last decade, but the UAE still ranks 137th in the world in terms of free-speech — languishing below the likes of Yemen, Sudan and Egypt.

One tiny glimmer of hope, however, which emanated from Al Jandaly’s ordeal is the fact that Sheikh Saif Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE’s interior minister intervened and made sure Al Jandaly was released and that the charges against her were scrapped.

“Eventually, the Sheikh made sure my name was removed from all of the wanted lists and all CID computers in the UAE and he made sure the arrest warrants were scrapped,” explained Al Jandaly. “Press freedom in the UAE is very limited at the moment, but hopefully the fact that the interior minister helped me out means that there will be some changes in the laws. But there is no way I will let this incident stop me,” she added.

Al Jandaly’s defiant mood after the event is in stark contrast to the way she felt during the six-hour ordeal — during which she was detained in the same room as a prostitute.

“At the time I felt like everyone was looking at me as if I was a criminal and I was very upset about it all,” she recalled. “The airport officials didn’t tell me what the problem was because they didn’t even know what was wrong. Then, when we got to the CID office they asked me if I had a problem in Sharjah. It made me feel really bad — I was detained along with a Chinese prostitute,” she explained.

The Gulf News staff reporter realised that the situation was really serious the moment she saw her name on Sharjah’s ‘wanted’ computer database. She was then told she would be handed over to Sharjah’s CID on the orders of the security affairs director — this petrified her.

“I was shocked and horrified and really didn’t know what to do, especially as it was seven in the morning and most government departments were closed,” says Al Jandaly. “An immigration official told me I would be detained until they transferred me to Sharjah CID, but thankfully that didn’t happen. I didn’t want to go to Sharjah and get locked up,” she exclaimed.

Thanks to Sheikh Al Nahyan’s timely intervention Al Jandaly was never hand-ed over to Sharjah’s authorities. She has also resumed her work, despite the strict press laws, which may continue to hamper her efforts.

“As journalists here in the UAE, we have to fight for our rights and this incident will not stop me from reporting on controversial issues and writing stories. There is no way I will let this stop me — I was just doing my job and I will continue to do my job the way I always have,” Al Jandaly passionately asserted.

Despite the high-profile nature of the incident, Sharjah police last week denied issuing a travel ban on Al Jandaly. In a press statement, the police said Al Jandaly had not responded to a summons served to her by Sharjah police over a February 25 news story.

“Sharjah police have been closely following with deep concern what was written in Arabic and English local dailies about the travel ban and the detention of the reporter at Dubai International Airport,” a statement from Sharjah police reads. “The police would like to clarify the plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the reporter and Gulf News UAE editor Duraid Al Baik for publishing the defamatory report, mentioning she was assaulted because of her ethnic background, referring also to her nickname, her profession and place of work. The police asked both of them to come to Sharjah police for investigation. As there was no response Sharjah police issued an arrest warrant against them,” the statement adds.

However, Articles 45 and 46 of the Federal Penal Law sets the conditions for issuing arrest warrants — this suggests Sharjah police should have notified the two reporters in accordance with the law. Mohammad Yousuf, chairman of the UAE Journalists Association, meanwhile, claimed Sharjah police’s procedure was illegal.

“It is well known the public prosecution issues a summons against the suspect including the date, place and name of the public prosecutor who will conduct the interrogation. Sharjah police’s procedure was illegal,” said Yousuf. “In their statement, Sharjah police mentioned they respect the media and the message it conveys. If this is true, they should have sent an official letter to Gulf News,” he added.


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