A freedom-promoting media centre is accused of going too far too fast
WHEN the Qataris asked Robert Ménard to run what they heralded as the world’s first press freedom centre, in Doha, their capital, they were probably asking for trouble. An intrepid Frenchman who had previously run a Paris-based lobby, Reporters Without Borders, Mr Ménard is famous for courting controversy. Last year he disrupted a torch-lighting ceremony in Greece that was meant to be a dignified prelude to the Olympic games in China. Later he scaled Notre Dame Cathedral and unfurled a protest banner as the torch was carried through Paris. Now, only months after becoming head of the Doha Centre for Media Freedom, he is entangled in a row that may well be more bitter than anything he has experienced.
The centre was launched only in October. Its supporting luminaries include Dominique de Villepin, a former French prime minister; Daniel Barenboim, a conductor; and Mia Farrow, an actress who cares about human rights. The centre aims to help imperilled journalists and promote press freedom everywhere. Qatar’s emir endorsed it; his wife, Sheikha Mozah, who heads the vastly rich Qatar Foundation, paid for it. The centre’s chairman also chairs the Qatari-owned al-Jazeera, the Arab world’s most popular television channel, which gives the little kingdom an influence far above its size or wealth.
Yet Qataris were clearly misguided if they believed Mr Ménard would change his florid and unabashed style of operation to suit his benefactors’ temperament. And Mr Ménard was equally misguided if he believed that a conservative society, not many decades removed from its Bedouin roots, would tolerate the permissive media practices of the West.
Rifts between Mr Ménard and Qatari officials began to open earlier this year when the centre, which runs two safe houses in Doha for journalists under threat, found that visas for some of those seeking shelter were being denied. In March Mr Ménard wrote an open letter to Sheikha Mozah on the centre’s website, telling her that “some people close to you and others you have appointed to senior positions at the centre” were obstructing its activities. One of those Mr Ménard accused was a Qatari, whom he fired.
Even in a Gulf autocracy as relatively liberal as Qatar’s, publicly chastening a high official can be rash. Moreover, Mr Ménard soon rattled his patrons with his zeal for change. An editorial in al-Sharq, a leading Qatari newspaper, soon accused him of endorsing pornography after he objected to internet censorship in Dubai, one of the nearby United Arab Emirates, where police had tried to block pornographic and anti-religious websites. Mr Ménard said his centre filtered out pornography aimed at the young. Then he was attacked in other editorials, each seemingly fiercer than the one before, in the local press.
Coincidentally but as if on cue, it was World Press Freedom Day earlier this month, an annual event jointly organised by the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the Doha media centre, that gave Qatar’s press, which Mr Ménard says was operating “under orders”, its latest opening. Apparently without the knowledge of Mr Ménard or the centre’s staff, Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of Jyllands-Posten, the Danish daily that published the controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad four years ago, had flown to the conference. He was accompanied by his boss, Jorgen Ejbol, who chairs the group that owns the offending newspaper—and co-sponsors UNESCO’s Press Freedom Prize.
An editorial in a local Qatari daily, al-Watan, promptly accused Mr Ménard of welcoming the Danish “Satan” to Doha. “Ménard should know there is a red line in media freedom which you cannot cross,” the editorial thundered, accusing the Frenchman of insulting all Muslims. There followed heated exchanges in the local assemblies, irate telephone calls to the interior ministry, angry e-mails to the centre’s staff telling them to leave, and at least one Qatari mosque sermon during Friday prayers that lambasted the media centre.
Mr Ménard says the row is really between conservatives and liberals in Qatar itself. “I know of no other country in the Arab world that would have had the courage to open the centre” and invite a critic into their midst, he says, lauding the emir and Sheikha Mozah. Closing the centre, he says, would be a defeat not only for liberalisation but also for the image of Qatar. For the royal rulers, it will be a hard choice.
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