The UAE Government’s ban on Mukto-Mona

-Mehul Kamdar

Published on February 13, 2007

Some years ago, when M D Gopalakrishnan, the then editor of The Modern Rationalist and the owner of Emerald Publishers died, I considered taking a job up in the UAE. Two of the major newspapers there had openings and a cousin who lives there asked me to apply for them since, as a printing technologist, he knew people in both companies and could put a word in. That was when I talked to my senior and friend Rajen Menon who was a former Illustrated Weekly of India staffer and who had made a very successful career out of writing independently on AIDS and other health related issues after the Illustrated Weekly closed down. His advice to me was simple, "Don’t go. You’ll hate it there." As someone who had never been to the Middle East then but who was fascinated by the area, it’s culture and the “differentness” from India, I asked him to explain what he meant. “Check out the websites of both Gulf News and the Khaleej Times,” he said, “There is very little ’news’ in them. You’ll find a lot on sports, on entertainment and on silly local events. You are not going to find news or analyses of any sort. Yes, you’ll get paid well but you’ll wait for your contract to end so that you could rush back to India and accept a lower paid but otherwise better job there.”

I did not take the job up as other options opened up in India itself in the meantime, but I made it my hobby to read both the major Gulf newspapers as regularly as I could. To be fair to them, they did carry more news progressively from 1998 until now albeit with an obvious restraint as if Big Brother was watching with a club in his hands. Every day there had to be at least one article about visa regulations for expats, something that worried every non UAE citizen who lived there as the rules were known to change on the whims of the rulers and bureaucrats, a full 20% of column space would be devoted to sports, there would be a mandatory anti-Israel article as well as, after 9/11, an article every day criticizing terrorists while insisting that they were not Muslims and that Islam itself had nothing to do with the actions of these murderers. It was obvious not just to journalists but also to any interested reader that these newspapers were operating under severe restrictions and had to keep looking at those in government for their approval every time. It was obvious that while there was no open censorship, there was a clear set of rules that newspaper owners were supposed to adhere to. And this was in what is considered the most “free” of all the Gulf Co-operation Council countries, a country that ostensibly relied on trading, tourism and services for it’s vast wealth as it had little oil compared to it’s neighbors. Was I surprised when the country’s government owned ISPs began blocking Mukto-Mona? From what I saw of the newspapers there, the ‘ban’ was not at all surprising. Since Mukto-Mona happens to be far from the UAE authorities’ jurisdiction, the one way to keep the residents of that country from accessing Mukto-Mona and it’s ideas would be to block access to it on the net without banning it officially.

What this says about the country that has done this, as well as it’s neighbors who are likely to implement this decision themselves very shortly, is considerable. An open ban would have been something that attracted widespread publicity and would have shown the UAE government in poor light especially as the country tries hard to project a tolerant and liberal image of itself to the world. There has not been anything offensive that has been published on Mukto-Mona as far as we can remember. Yes, there have been more than several criticisms of religion, and this has been equally of all religions, not just the primary religion of the UAE. There have been criticisms of several governments with little if anything being written about a country that matters as little to the rest of the world like the UAE does, not to mention it’s complete insignificance to international affairs. Thugs in governments that intimidate journalists often have exaggerated notions of their importance to the world. While I wonder what other websites could have been ‘banned’ by the UAE in this way, the fact is that this is going to do little more than expose the country’s ways to the world at large. Shame on a country that cannot tolerate facts, debate and honest opinions. The UAE has not distinguished itself in any positive way. This decision to block the Mukto-Mona website illustrates not only it’s thuggery as far as the news is concerned, ironically, it also illustrates the country’s helplessness in doing anything about a website that is dedicated to discussing anything important that comes up before it. The UAE authorities, smug in their little sheikdom, need to know that there are far more people outside their borders than within them and we shall work hard to show the world more about their country.

Mehul Kamdar is currently moderating Mukto-Mona forum. He is from Chennai, India, currently living in Chicago, USA. He was the editor of The Modern Rationalist under the late M D Gopalakrishnan  and associated with various rationalist movements.