Freedom of the Press
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Freedom of the Press Scores
Key Developments in 2016:
- In November, authorities blocked access to Doha News, a popular English-language news website with a history of covering sensitive political topics.
- In May, security officials detained three journalists from the Danish Broadcasting Corporation who were filming a migrant workers’ soccer tournament and, before releasing the group, confiscated their footage and forced them to confess to trespassing and filming without permission.
- After Amnesty International released a detailed report in March on the treatment of migrant workers building facilities for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, almost all local news outlets refrained from covering the report for Qatari audiences.
Media outlets 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 November, Qatar’s internet service providers (ISPs) blocked Doha News—the first time that the news outlet has faced such a measure. When attempting to reach the site, users received a notice that the site was blocked due to “prohibited material,” but the government, which exercises vast control over the country’s telecommunications providers, did not give clear reasons for the blocking. Doha News continued to operate and publish on its website through the end of the year, and audiences in Qatar were able to access it through virtual private networks (VPNs), which encrypt and reroute users’ traffic to circumvent the block.
Amnesty International published an extensive report in March about the treatment of immigrant laborers who are building new facilities for the 2022 World Cup, detailing squalid living conditions, inadequate pay, confiscation of passports, and other problems. In a sign of self-censorship, most local media outlets did not cover the publication of the report, although Doha News did. Covering migrant workers’ rights has long presented risks for both local and international media, and authorities have a history of interfering with journalists who attempt to investigate workers’ living and employment conditions. In May, security officials stopped and detained a crew from the Danish Broadcasting Corporation that was filming a migrant workers’ soccer tournament outside Doha. The journalists had secured permission to record the event, but police forced them to sign written confessions that they had trespassed and filmed without official permission. While police released the journalists without charge, they did not return their footage.
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 of Qatar had not approved the legislation at the end of 2016.
The country’s 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, have complained that its vague language allows room for abuse.
In July 2016, security forces detained Peter Kovessy, a Doha News assistant editor, to question him about his reporting on a case of child sexual abuse. Authorities questioned whether his work violated the cybercrime law, but quickly dismissed the case. Freedom of expression watchdogs have warned of potential abuse of the controversial cybercrime law since its passage in 2014, and in October, Doha News published an editorial detailing misuse of the law, arguing that it has often been a part of personal vendettas. In Kovessy’s case, an individual convicted of child sexual abuse, whom Kovessy named in an article, used the law to complaint about reputational damage. Doha News called for officials to reform the law in order to minimize room for misuse and protect freedom of expression.
The country offers no freedom of information legislation. In 2014, the government approved the Open Data Policy, an initiative that obliges state 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 is ostensibly designed to address longstanding concerns about the secretive and opaque nature of Qatar’s government, but its effectiveness remained unclear at the end of 2016.
Political Environment: 27 / 40 (↓1)
The government operates in a secretive and opaque manner, and media houses and professionals do not generally have access to official information. The government, the Qatar Radio and Television Corporation, and customs officers are authorized to censor both domestic and foreign media for religious, political, and sexual content prior to distribution. The country’s ISPs also block a wide range of 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. In November 2016, the country’s two ISPs blocked Doha News, and at year’s end, the website remained inaccessible in Qatar without a VPN. The outlet, which published in English, had a history of covering sensitive or controversial issues omitted by most local news providers. Authorities did not immediately provide a clear justification for the block to Doha News or international media watchdogs, who widely protested the measure.
Self-censorship is reportedly widespread. For example, local media largely ignored the March 2016 report by Amnesty International about conditions facing the migrant laborers working on World Cup construction projects. Separately, in 2012, most local media did not cover a 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 who owned a childcare center where many victims became trapped as well as his wife, who managed the center. 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.
There is little diversity or pluralism in the media sector, and many outlets exhibit a government-friendly tone. In an unprecedented move, in August 2016, Doha News published an editorial in which a young Qatari, using a pseudonym, detailed life in the country as a gay man. Same-sex sexual activity is illegal in Qatar, and controversy surrounded the article upon publication, with critics claiming that its contents stood against the country’s values.
Retaliatory violence against journalists and bloggers is rare, but media workers sometimes encounter official interference in the course of their work. In May, security officials detained three journalists working for the Danish Broadcasting Corporation outside Doha, where they were filming a migrant workers’ soccer tournament. Although the journalists had secured prior permission to film, police confiscated their footage and released them only after forcing them to confess to trespassing and filming without permission.
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.
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 94 percent of the population accessed it in 2016.