Two Swiss journalists who were in the United Arab Emirates to cover the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi were detained and interrogated for two days after they were spotted filming migrant workers at an open-air market on the outskirts of the city.
Serge Enderlin and cameraman Jon Bjorgvinsson were accredited journalists reporting on the museum’s inauguration for the Swiss public television channel RTS.
The pair arrived in Abu Dhabi at the beginning of last week, filmed the museum’s lush opening ceremonies, and interviewed its architect Jean Nouvel.
They were arrested on Thursday, November 9, the day before they were scheduled to return home. According to the journalists’ account, they were interrogated for 50 hours after police spotted them filming Pakistani workers at the market in Mussafah, an industrial town to the southwest of Abu Dhabi that is home to tens of thousands of migrant workers.
“We were unlucky,” Enderlin said of the ordeal in a French-language RTS segment, which aired on Sunday night. “[These workers] build this country in trying conditions. We just wanted to document their lives.”
The Louvre Abu Dhabi, along with other museum projects in the region, have come under fire in the past for the treatment of migrant workers, who make up 90 percent of the private workforce in the UAE, according to Human Rights Watch. A 2015 report by the organization concluded that these workers were subject to unsafe working conditions and low wages.
After the journalists were arrested, officials confiscated their camera, hard drives, and other equipment. On Saturday night, they were permitted to return to Zurich—without their materials.
Enderlin and Bjorgyvinsson said they were subjected to ten-hour interrogation sessions and a relentless campaign of intimidation. “They never laid a hand on us, but their interrogations were tough and took a very long time,” explained Bjorgyvinsson. He said he and his colleague were separated and blindfolded when they were moved between facilities.
According to the journalists’ account, officials in Abu Dhabi wanted to know why they had been filming at the market and were apparently incensed by the portrayal of migrant workers in the Swiss media. They also questioned them about their collaboration with nonprofits and demanded access to their digital devices.
After 25 hours of interrogation and what he referred to as the waging of a “nervous war,” Enderlin gave up the passcode for his phone.
On Saturday, the journalists say they were pressured to sign a confession, the exact nature of which was unclear. Enderlin described it as covering “everything and anything. That I was a Israeli spy, a Qatari spy, an ambassador from Human Rights Watch…,”
RTS director Pascal Crittin condemned the arrest in a tweet yesterday afternoon. The channel’s news editor Bernard Rappaz also weighed in on the arrest, tweeting, “In these times of so-called freedom of information and veritable ‘fake news,’ the opportunity to remember the risks of investigative journalism and the absolute need to support it.”
Government officials have not yet commented on the journalists’ detention, and a representative from Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development and Investment Company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Follow artnet News on Facebook:
Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.