Freedom of the Press
Press Freedom Score (0 = best, 100 = worst)
Legal Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Political Environment(0 = best, 40 = worst)
Economic Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
While Qatar’s flagship satellite television channel, Al-Jazeera, is permitted to air critical reports on foreign countries and leaders, journalists are subject to prosecution for criticizing the Qatari government, the ruling family, or Islam.
Article 47 of the constitution “assures” freedom of expression “according to circumstances and conditions” prescribed by law. The 1979 Press and Publications Law is administered by the criminal courts and assigns imprisonment for libel. The penal code also provides penalties for defamation. In addition, broadly framed antiterrorism legislation can also be used to restrict freedom of expression.
The Advisory Council, Qatar’s appointed legislative body, drafted a new press law in 2011 that would eliminate the imprisonment of journalists for defamation, prohibit officials from questioning journalists without a court order, and permit journalists to keep their sources confidential unless instructed otherwise by a court. The draft also includes multiple provisions for the regulation of online media. A revised version of the draft was approved by the Advisory Council in 2012, with added provisions that would abolish criminal charges for press offenses and criticism of the Qatari rulers. However, stiff financial penalties would be imposed for the broadcasting or publication of any information that criticizes the Qatari government or its allies, harms national interests, or offends the ruling family. The draft law had not yet been approved by the emir at the end of 2014.
In September 2014, the government approved a new cybercrime law that restricts freedom of speech online, with maximum punishments reaching imprisonment for up to three years and a fine of up to 500,000 Qatari riyals ($137,000) for a wide range of offenses. The law criminalizes distributing “false news,” violating “social values or principles,” and any online behavior that can jeopardize state security. The law also penalizes online defamation with a fine of up to 100,000 Qatari riyals ($27,000) and imprisonment for up to one year. Critics of the law, including international watchdogs, complained that its vague language allows room for abuse.
All publications are subject to government licensing.
In November 2014, the government of Qatar approved the Open Data Policy, an initiative that obliges government entities to release certain official information to the public, with significant exemptions. The policy is part of the country’s development strategy for 2011-2016, and has been framed by the government as an effort to increase transparency. The policy ostensibly addresses longstanding concerns about the secretive and opaque nature of Qatar’s government, although its scope and implementation remained unclear at year’s end.
The government, the Qatar Radio and Television Corporation, and customs officers are authorized to censor both domestic and foreign print and broadcast media for religious, political, and sexual content prior to distribution. Online content is censored through the country’s sole internet service provider, which is state-owned. Internet users are directed to a proxy server that maintains a list of banned websites and blocks material deemed inconsistent with the religious, cultural, political, and moral values of Qatar. The Doha Centre for Media Freedom, a government-backed organization ostensibly dedicated to press freedom, dismissed director Jan Keulen in late 2013. The center had published a report on the weak media laws of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries in 2012, and noted the need for more media freedom and transparency in Qatar. Prior to his dismissal, Keulen had also publicly expressed disappointment with the case of a Qatari poet who received a 15-year prison sentence for reciting a poem about the Arab Spring on YouTube.
Self-censorship is reportedly widespread, although Doha News, an online news site, has been able to publish content critical of the government without interference or reprisal. The Qatari media largely ignored a 2012 fire in the popular Villagio shopping center in Doha that killed 19 people, including 13 children. Local outlets were reportedly ordered by a court to refrain from covering the trial of those held responsible for the blaze; the accused included a member of the ruling family, Sheikh Ali bin Jassim al-Thani, who owned the childcare center where many victims became trapped, and his wife, who managed the center. The Doha News published an article examining the government’s failures in responding to the disaster. The judge presiding over the case did not allow Doha News staff to attend the trial, stating that only “official” media outlets could access the proceedings. Local media did not cover later parts of the trial, although no official reason was given.
In December 2014, following requests from the Egyptian government, Qatar suspended Al-Jazeera’s Live Egypt channel. Egyptian authorities had banned Live Egypt and shuttered its Cairo office in 2013, but the channel had continued broadcasting from Doha, regularly producing critical coverage of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government.
Foreigners comprise a majority of the media workers in the country, and there is a disparity in the authorities’ treatment of Qatari and non-Qatari journalists. While local reporters often receive warnings and threats when pushing the limits of permissible coverage, noncitizens employed by Qatari media outlets risk harsher repercussions, including termination, deportation, and imprisonment. All foreign journalists working in the country must be accredited by the Qatar Foreign Information Agency and sponsored by a local institution or the Information Ministry. However, journalists in compliance with these rules can still be barred from entering the country, and occasionally have been subject to harassment and arrest after engaging in journalistic activities within Qatar. A German journalist was arrested in 2013 for filming at the construction sites of the 2022 World Cup. The German journalist was released the next day after admitting that he did not have official permission to film in the country.
Cases of physical harassment of journalists and bloggers are rare, and although some have been subject to detention without charge as a consequence of their work, no such cases occurred in 2014.
Qatar has seven newspapers that publish in either Arabic or English, all of which are owned by members of the ruling family or their business associates. The state owns and operates all broadcast media, and there are only two television networks in the country, Qatar TV and Al-Jazeera. While Qatar TV broadcasts mostly official news and progovernment perspectives, Al-Jazeera focuses its coverage on regional and global news, providing only sparse and uncritical reports on local issues. Programming on local radio stations is more accommodating to criticism of government services and operations. The concentration of media ownership within the ruling family and the high financial costs and citizenship requirements for obtaining media licenses continue to hinder the expansion and freedom of the press. The internet has become a major source of news and information in Qatar, and approximately 91 percent of the population accessed the medium in 2014.