Freedom of the Press
Media houses and professionals in Qatar are subject to significant restrictions, and the overall landscape encourages a high level of self-censorship. While the country’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.
- In March, security agents temporarily detained a German sports reporter and his team for filming migrant workers without permission, confiscating their equipment and deleting their footage.
- In a similar case in May, security forces temporarily detained four journalists from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) while they were traveling to interview migrant workers.
Legal Environment: 21 / 30
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, which is also an offense under the penal code. The country’s 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. The Advisory Council revised a version of the draft in 2012, and included provisions that would abolish criminal charges for press offenses and criticism of Qatari rulers. However, the draft retained stiff financial penalties 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 emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, had not yet approved the legislation at the end of 2015.
The country’s 2014 cybercrime law includes restrictions on 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). 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. In 2015, there were no reports of the law being used against media professionals.
All publications are subject to government licensing and regulatory requirements.
Political Environment: 26 / 40 (↓2)
In 2014, the government 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. However, according to watchdogs and observers, it had not had a substantial impact on transparency by the end of 2015.
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. The country’s sole internet service provider, which is state-owned, censors online content. 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 Center 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 repressive 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 Sheikh Ali bin Jassim al-Thani, a member of the ruling family who owned a 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 officials did not provide a reason.
In 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 Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s administration.
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 Foreign Information Agency and sponsored by a local institution or the Information Ministry. Media professionals in compliance with these rules can still be denied entry or subjected to harassment or arrest for engaging in journalistic activities in Qatar.
In 2015, Qatar drew increased international scrutiny over conditions for migrant workers building stadiums for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and there were reports of state actors interfering with media professionals in the course of reporting. In March, security agents arbitrarily detained a German sports reporter and his team for filming migrant workers without permission, confiscated their equipment, and deleted their footage. They were released within a day but faced a temporary travel ban before securing approval to leave Qatar. In May, security forces temporarily detained four journalists from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) as they were traveling to interview migrant workers. According to the BBC, Qatari authorities accused the journalists of national security offenses, reportedly because they had sought to conduct interviews without official permission.
Physical violence against journalists and bloggers is rare, and no such cases were reported in 2015.
Economic Environment: 22 / 30
There are seven newspapers publishing in either Arabic or English, and all are owned by members of the ruling family or their 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 of the press. The internet has become a major source of news and information in Qatar; approximately 93 percent of the population accessed it in 2015.