In my last column, I wrote about Dubai's efforts to put the most-favorable spin on the emirate's growing financial difficulties, with one local newspaper banning words such as "bailout" to describe Dubai's $10 billion loan from neighbor Abu Dhabi.
The English-language Gulf News instituted a "style guide" to protect it from "financially incorrect" terms such as "debt crisis" and instead urged use of phrases such as "financial consolidation" to describe economic conditions in Dubai.
The managing director of the company that runs Gulf News, among many other assets, is Obaid Humaid Al Tayer. In his role as president of the Dubai Chamber of Commerce, he delivered a rather stern lecture to delegates attending the International Advertising Association's conference in 2006. One of Mr. Al Tayer's topics was, ironically, press freedom. He said the U.S. has one of the "least free" media environments. "It's closed to others, but they keep lecturing about freedom of speech. It's a double standard."
I used that quote to show that Mr. Al Tayer was being hypocritical by criticizing our press standards while sugarcoating what was going on in his own country. But I think I may owe him an apology after hearing what happened to one of our own publications.
The editor of our German-language newspaper, AutomobilWoche, was denied entry into the U.S. to cover the North American International Auto Show in Detroit because he didn't have a visa.
Never mind that other European business visitors to the U.S. don't need visas. For instance, the advertising director from AutomobilWoche didn't have a visa and arrived in Detroit without incident.
Our editor, Guido Reinking, didn't have a visa because our U.S. consulate lost his application. He went a second time to give them his fingerprints and officials told him he'd get the visa soon. It came a week too late. "I always thought we Germans invented bureaucracy," Guido commented.
Ever since 2003, when INS became part of the Department of Homeland Security, foreign journalists have been required to obtain a special visa to enter the U.S. Other business visitors don't need such a visa if they are from a country with a visa waiver program, and they are routinely given a 90-day pass to enter the U.S.
No wonder it's so difficult for immigration officials to connect the dots -- they're too busy fingerprinting journalists. How can it happen that the Nigerian underpants bomber can obtain a visa and fly into Detroit when our editor is denied?
Peter Brown, publisher of Automotive News, contends that "independently of the bureaucratic catastrophe of Guido's experience, I think that a free country requiring visas from friendly European nations is preposterous. This is in no way a useful anti-terrorism initiative. It's just an anti-free flow of information initiative."
The result from a practical standpoint, Peter pointed out, is that our German publication had inferior coverage of the Detroit auto show, Detroit got less business from this biggest thing of the year (no hotel meals, etc., for Guido), "and America looks stupid and oppressive like China."
My brother Keith, editor in chief of Automotive News, is equally upset. In his Crain's Detroit Business column, Keith wrote, "It's ridiculous that a citizen of Germany, coming to Detroit as a journalist to write about our auto show, is required to apply for and receive a visa before he can come. If he is a tourist, then he doesn't need a visa.
"In a country that would allow a terrorist to fly into Detroit without baggage and with a bomb strapped to his body, the idea that we require a journalist to apply for a visa from a country that doesn't require anyone else to have a visa is silly," he said. "In a country that believes in free speech, this is a discrimination of the worst kind."
Is this what Mr. Al Tayer was getting at when he said back in 2006 that the U.S. is "closed to others" when it comes to freedom of speech?