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.
The story spread quickly 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. 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 also inked non-disclosure agreements, 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 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 affect the credibility of the publication.”
More than a week later, IMI’s CEO Nart Bouran visited the newsroom for a meeting, where he declared the dissolution of Al Roeya and announced 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 the professional networking website LinkedIn suggest some 90 people had been working at Al Roeya.
“This case [of Al Roeya] sounds part and parcel of the general repressive environment,” said Grothe from Freedom House. “It has a chilling effect.”
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”.