How the Emirates Censors
Cartoons don’t appear in a vacuum. Whether on the printed page or online, the art form is always in conversation with people, places, and things.
Perhaps that’s why two recent news items from the United Arab Emirates caught my eye. Earlier this month, a Jordanian cultural journalist named Tayseer al-Najjar was convicted of “insulting the state’s symbols,” after a yearlong pre-trial detention without legal representation. Five days later, authorities detained the Emirati activist Ahmed Mansoor.
Though these two cases are seemingly unrelated, both men share one trait: they are critics of a government that doesn’t tolerate criticism. I was reminded of a provocation from the late Emirati visual artist and cartoonist Hassan Sharif: “The same tyrants are refusing to leave their thrones, and the youth are still dreaming of a nation they can be proud of and have a say in.”
Just keep those dreams to yourself!
I have been disappointed by the dearth of coverage of these two cases, both in the mainstream Western media and in the Emirati press. By way of comparison, the UAE’s recent push to protect antiquities in war zones has received a lavish treatment in prestigious publications. Art Dubai was widely written about in big newspapers and niche art magazines. Even aviation news commands more eyeballs: when Emirates produced a jokey commercial about the recent laptop ban, the result was clickbait galore.
But for those of us committed to free expression, al-Najjar and Mansoor demand our attention.
From what I have been able to piece together, al-Najjar’s case relates to a Facebook post from 2014, in which he censured the UAE for its cooperation with Egypt in destroying Hamas’s Gaza tunnels—which apparently is tantamount to mocking “state symbols.”
Mansoor, who in recent months has been a target of concerted spyware attacks, is accused of spreading hate speech in online forums. According to Human Rights Watch, ten officers broke into his home, confiscated all electronic devices, and took him into custody.
If Mansoor is a promoter of “hate and sectarianism,” as the UAE conveyed in a written statement, this wasn’t readily apparent when I interviewed him last year. Here is a write-up of our conversation, which I published in a report for the Institute of Current World Affairs:
“The UAE is living in its darkest ages considering human rights in general,” says Ahmed Mansoor, an Emirati human rights advocate. He details authorities’ systematic use of torture with impunity, notably black sites where Emiratis and foreign nationals are held for long periods incommunicado. The State Department, UN rapporteur, and international NGOs have documented such offenses, and Mansoor suggests that many more cases of extralegal detention and corrupt practices go undocumented. Victims are rightly afraid to speak out, largely because there is no separation of powers; State Security targets whistleblowers and urges the courts to pursue harsh sentencing.
Mansoor himself is one of the victims. In 2011, he was arrested on trumped up charges related to an open online forum he had founded called UAE Dialogue. He was convicted of “publicly insulting” UAE leaders. He served eight months in jail, until the president pardoned him. Due to his criminal record, however, he lost his job. Upon returning to his studies, he was assaulted twice and received many threats, pressures that forced him to drop out of law school. Among the other forms of harassment he has faced: $140,000 disappeared from his bank account, his car was stolen, his communications hacked. Authorities confiscated his passport in 2011, which means he is unable to leave the country.
I asked Mansoor what he would say to Art Dubai attendees. “I would urge these people not to ignore the human rights,” says Mansoor. “It’s a core subject in arts in general, and they should not overlook it for the opportunity to participate in any festivals.”
Mansour also added, “To me, if human rights and freedom do not exist in a place, everything else is — what I will say — it’s of no importance.”