Qatar is not known for political spats and controversy but a publicly aired argument between the Doha Centre for Media Freedom and its political sponsors has recently livened up the peninsula.
On the eve of last month’s opening of the Qatar Science and Technology Park – a flagship royally sponsored project – the centre sent an incendiary open letter to its sponsor, Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al Missned, the wife of the emir.
In the missive, the centre lambasted the authorities for failing to issue a visa to an Afghan journalist before he was killed in the war-torn country. It blamed “people close” to Sheikha Mozah for doing their utmost to “disrupt our efforts, trying by all possible means to restrict our independence and our freedom to speak and act, and therefore our credibility”.
The letter highlighted the escalating tension between the centre – founded by Robert Ménard, formerly of Paris-based Reporters Without Borders – and its paymasters over the state of the country’s media. Qatar’s perceived lethargy in reforming and modernising its 1979 press laws and improving conditions for its domestic journalists has been the main bone of contention.
Qatar has been praised for its financial and political support of al-Jazeera, the television news network that has covered controversial regional affairs, and the Doha Debates, a frank and uncensored discussion of Arab and Muslim affairs.
Yet the relative freedom of al-Jazeera and the Doha Debates stand in sharp contrast to the continued system of direct and indirect censorship of the domestic media industry, say local journalists.
“It’s right to distinguish between the local and international media,” says a senior journalist based in Doha. “They want to project Qatar to the world but the local press isn’t nearly as free as the international media.”
Qatari press laws stipulate prison sentences for a host of offences, including criticising religion, the army and the royal family. Most companies are directly or indirectly linked to the government, Qatari royalty or a powerful family, and can exert huge pressure on media outlets to stick to positive news.
On an individual level, journalists are pressured into self-censorship. Most are expatriates and their employers hold on to their passports, with many called in for questioning by the police when they displease the authorities or powerful private interests.
In sum, it amounts to an informal but effective form of censorship, says Mr Ménard. “It’s practically impossible to criticise government policy ... The Qatari press law is both obsolete and repressive,” he says.
Qatari journalists are not the only ones in the Gulf labouring under archaic laws. The United Arab Emirates mandates prison sentences for “harming” the economy, and a new draft law, which has yet to be signed by the UAE president, abolishes prison terms but maintains stiff fines.
In Saudi Arabia, the threat of prison sentences and a tight leash on media proprietors ensures pervasive self-censorship by journalists.
With the exception of Israel, Lebanon, Kuwait and Egypt, US-based think-tank Freedom House ranks the media in every country in the Middle East and north Africa as “not free”.
In Qatar, even al-Jazeera is not as free as it likes to portray it is, says Abdulaziz Al-Mahmoud, editor in chief of the Al-Arab newspaper and a former employee of the network. “Al-Jazeera doesn’t talk about local Qatari issues. If they did, they’d have the same issues as everyone else,” he says.
Sheikha Mozah’s office declined to comment on the centre’s allegations, but the authorities have indicated that they will allow the formation of a journalists’ trade union and will ratify the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – which deals with freedom of opinion, expression and information.
However, the centre is frustrated with the sluggishness of the authorities, and will leave if Qatar does not pass an improved press law, says Mr Ménard.
“There’s no way ... we can criticise other countries in the region while letting Qatar lag behind on press freedom matters,” he says.
“We would have no credibility, and I can’t accept that.”