This column first appeared in the March issue of Bold Magazine
THE ARRESTS OF SHEZANNE CASSIM AND DOZENS OF OTHERS OVER INNOCUOUS SOCIAL MEDIA INTERACTIONS – SOME SATIRICAL, SOME EXPLICITLY CRITICAL – CREATE A CHILLING EFFECT ACROSS DUBAI’S CREATIVE INDUSTRIES, EVEN AS THE EMIRATE TRIES TO SELL ITSELF AS A CENTER FOR THE ARTS. SUCH INTOLERANCE THREATENS THE CITY-STATE’S LONG-TERM STABILITY
By Habib Battah
hezanne Cassim is a name the rulers of Dubai would probably like to forget. For months, the 29-year-old American was held in a remote maximum security prison, one reserved for threats to national security. CNN correspondent Sarah Sidner drove past the desert facility, after government officials had refused to talk to her. Local and regional media largely ignored the case, so it was surprising that CNN Abu Dhabi, which frequently offers complimentary coverage of the monarchy, would cover the story. In fact, the only Emirati that spoke to the network went to jail shortly after Sidner’s piece was aired.
Even Cassim, a Sri-Lankan American who grew up in Dubai and worked as a consultant for PriceWaterhouseCoopers, was not aware of the charges against him until five months after he was incarcerated by UAE police. Finally, after nearly nine months in jail, he was convicted earlier this year for “defaming the UAE.” The offense was a 20-minute YouTube spoof film he had made that playfully mocked Emirati street fighting culture. In one skit, locals use their agala, the black rope that fastens a headdress in its place, as a weapon. (This was actually not far from the truth as last year an Emirati was filmed beating a migrant worker mercilessly with his agala on the side of the highway. The man who shot the humiliating episode on his phone and uploaded to YouTube was also jailed.)
But Cassim was more fortunate than the scores of human rights activists languishing in UAE prisons over their social media interactions. His family in the US mounted a social media campaign, with hashtag #FreeShez, and enlisted the help of US lawmakers, attorneys and government officials. Major Hollywood actors also came to Cassim’s defense, including Will Ferrell, who created a video demanding his release with the cast of US television show “Funny or Die.” Sure enough, two weeks later, and despite his recent conviction, Cassim was released for time already served. Amusingly the UAE judge ordered that copies of the film be “confiscated,” perhaps not realizing the existence of YouTube or that trial publicity helped garner the spoof film over half a million views.
In an interview with the BBC, UAE prime minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum called the incident a “mistake,” adding: “We are not perfect and we try to change it… we are doing our best.” But Maktoum stopped short of apologizing for taking away nine months of Cassim’s life or for jailing or sentencing seven others that worked on the film, including Europeans and North Americans who were convicted in absentia. Little is also known about the fate of Emirati activist Obaid Al-Zaabi, who appeared in the CNN report, or the 22-year-old unnamed Indian who shot the cell phone video that may have helped inspire Cassim’s spoof.
Equally disturbing about the affair is the chilling effects it will have on creativity in the UAE, which is trying to sell itself as a center for the arts with its star-studded film festivals, production cities and bids to open branches of New York University and the Louvre museum.
Writing in The Guardian after his release, Cassim questioned why Dubai authorities had not sued the producers of major Hollywood movies such as George Clooney’s “Syriana” or Tom Cruise’s “Mission Impossible,” which were shot in Dubai (presumably with lots of local help) and yet portrayed Gulf states as a “politically corrupt breeding ground for Islamic terrorism.”
“The authorities supported and feted those movies, even though they portray the country as a paradise for international criminals, but I was imprisoned, deported and banned from returning to the UAE for a novice comedy-sketch…” Cassim wrote.
On Facebook, I asked several Lebanese friends and colleagues working in Dubai about the case while Cassim was still in prison and astonishingly, many of them defended the government ruling.
One friend, a creative writer for a major ad agency, put it bluntly: “Most people (expats and locals) living here don’t need to question the royal families … because at the end of the day, they are provided with a good lifestyle.”
Another colleague, a marketing manager for large brands, suggested a more troubling view:
“I do support such rulings… No one forced people to come to the UAE. They want to come, let them respect the laws of the country…. A nation is protected when it has clear laws, regardless of what they are.” He added: “Those living abroad prefer to focus on more important things relating to their work and lives than spend it criticizing a nation that is putting food on their table every single day…”
But how could punitive limits on creative expression be divorced from “daily lives,” particularly when you work in a creative industry? Perhaps my friends fear they will wind up like over 100 Emirati human rights lawyers and activists that have been jailed, many for the interactions on social media, according to the Emirates Center for Human Rights. But have they even heard of those prisoners? How many local or Arab media outlets have publicized their cases?
The UAE is not alone. The region’s prisons are full of filmmakers, activists bloggers and journalists. In Egypt for example, three Al Jazeera journalists have been in jail since last year simply because their coverage was seen as sympathetic to the opposition. The trial has probably received more attention from the foreign press than regional outlets, which it may affect most. And before we rush to label this as an “Arab phenomenon,” let’s not forget that a US congressman threatened to throw a reporter off the balcony and cut him “in half,” in a conversation that was caught on tape earlier this year. Astonishingly, the reporter accepted the politician’s apology. Was he worried about rocking the boat? And what if that conversation was not caught on tape? How many threats or intimidation tactics do journalists face on a daily basis that are not accidentally recorded? How often do they self-censor themselves, preemptively?
Our conditioned acceptance of intimidation is the lasting consequence of harassment. Cassim may be free now but how many will dare satire Dubai in the future? Yes there may be plenty of jobs today, but what about when the oil wealth runs dry? How will the UAE build a media industry to compete with global players if it cannot laugh at itself or produce humor, the basis of the entertainment industry?
Dubai has recently won hosting rights to the Expo 2020 international exhibition. Its leaders speak constantly about aspirations to create a city of the future, launching a dizzying array of “world-class” initiatives in education, health care, green energy, architecture, finance, even space exploration. But what about when those leaders are gone? What future is there without public participation, through public institutions? And what institutions can be built without accountability or transparency? As it stands today, will anyone dare question how the courts work or how public money is spent?
The chilling effect, the willingness to stay silent without being asked, is a serious long-term danger, not just for business. Have a look around the region and it’s painfully clear that bottling up dissent does not bode well for long-term stability, which is what is needed to put food on the table.
Watch the video that landed Cassim in jail here: