Rupert Murdoch on Tuesday challenged tight controls on media in the Middle East, calling censorship counterproductive and urging Arab leaders to allow their citizens the freedom to unleash their creativity.
The News Corp. chairman and chief executive, whose conglomerate has been increasing its presence in the region, made the comments to media executives and regional political leaders during the keynote speech of a media summit in the Emirati capital Abu Dhabi.
"In the face of an inconvenient story, it can be tempting to resort to censorship or civil or criminal laws to try to bury it. This is not only a problem here," Murdoch said. "In the long run, this is counterproductive."
The comments come against the backdrop of a sharp economic downturn in nearby Dubai, which like Abu Dhabi is one of seven semiautonomous city-states comprising the UAE. Dubai's ruler has blasted the international media for criticizing his city and its financial downfall, at one point telling critics abroad to "shut up."
The Emirates, like many Arab states, maintains tight controls on domestic media. Legislation approved by federal lawmakers here last year would significantly tighten the penalties against journalists and has been attacked by rights groups.
Underscoring the restrictions that still exist here, organizers of the first-ever Abu Dhabi Media Summit did not allow reporters or news photographers accredited for the conference into the hall where Murdoch was speaking, providing a closed-circuit television feed instead. He did not take questions.
Murdoch, a polarizing figure whose company's properties include Fox News and The Wall Street Journal, drew on his personal experience in dealing with unwelcome criticism to make his case for greater press freedom.
Drawing a parallel with the boomtowns of the fast growing Gulf, the News Corp. boss noted that negative media attention was "the price one pays for success," and that trying to censor it creates risks of its own.
"Markets that distort their media end up promoting the very panic and distrust that they had hoped to control," he said.
Murdoch told delegates that Arabs' creative talents "remained constrained by arbitrary boundaries," and said the region needs fewer regulations and more incentives to encourage investment by the media private sector.
He characterized the creative industries as a way to create jobs and improve the quality of life.
"Your people are eager, talented and young," he said. "Give them a society that rewards creativity."
Oil-rich Abu Dhabi is hosting the conference largely to highlight its push into the media sector, which includes investing in Hollywood films and building an office park to house foreign news agencies.
Murdoch has shown increasing interest in the growing but fragmented Middle East media market.
A division of News Corp., Fox International Channels, announced on the eve of the conference that it would set up some operations in the new state-run media complex in Abu Dhabi.
The broadcaster said Monday it will move the Middle East operations for its online advertising business .FOX to Abu Dhabi's TwoFour54 media complex. Fox International's NHNZ division will also set up a production facility in the Emirati capital, and the operations for some of its Middle East satellite channels will relocate there from Hong Kong.
Financial terms of the plan were not disclosed.
Christopher Davidson, a professor at the University of Durham who has written extensively about the UAE, said Murdoch's challenges reflect a frustration by international media companies aiming for a piece of the youthful and rapidly expanding Arab market.
"They want a piece of the action in what could be one of the fastest growing parts of the world ... but there is not this liberalization of the media economy," he said.
Fox's announcement comes weeks after News Corp. said it was spending $70 million for a 9.1 percent slice of Arabic media giant Rotana Group, which is headed by Saudi billionaire and key News Corp. shareholder Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who sat near Murdoch at the summit.
Rotana, which bills itself as the Arab world's largest music producer, boasts many of the region's biggest stars, including Egyptian singer Amr Diab and Lebanese diva Elissa. It also operates a number of music and movie satellite channels and controls a film library of more than 1,500 Arabic movies.
Alwaleed is a longtime investor in News Corp., and his company distributes Fox films in the Middle East. His 7 percent stake in the company makes him News Corp.'s biggest shareholder after members of the Murdoch family.
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