Freedom in the World
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In June 2012, Qatar’s Advisory Council passed a draft media law that would criminalize criticism of the Qatari government or its allies, and a poet was sentenced to life in prison in December for insulting the emir. Meanwhile, Qatar provided support during the year to opposition forces attempting to overthrow Syria’s government.
Qatar gained independence from Britain in 1971. The following year, Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani deposed his cousin, Emir Ahmad bin Ali al-Thani, and ruled for 23 years as an absolute monarch. In 1995, the emir was deposed by his son, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who began a program of gradual political, social, and economic reforms. Hamad dissolved the Ministry of Information shortly after taking power, an action designed to demonstrate his commitment to expanding press freedom.
In 1996, Hamad permitted the creation of Al-Jazeera, which has become one of the most popular Arabic-language satellite television channels in the Middle East. However, Al-Jazeera generally does not cover Qatari politics and focuses instead on regional issues.
The country held its first elections in 1999 for a 29-member Central Municipal Council, a body designed to advise the minister on municipal affairs and agriculture. The poll made Qatar the first state of the Gulf Cooperation Council to introduce widespread voting rights for men and women over 18 years of age. Hamad also accelerated a program to strengthen Qatar’s educational institutions, inviting foreign universities to establish branches in the country.
In addition to Central Municipal Council elections in 2003, Qataris voted in a referendum that overwhelmingly approved the country’s first constitution, which came into force in 2005. The new constitution slightly broadened the scope of political participation without eliminating the ruling family’s monopoly on power, and most rights do not apply to noncitizen residents, who form a majority of the population.
The most recent Municipal Council elections were held in May 2011. Four of the 101 candidates were women; the only woman who had previously served on the Council was re-elected. Voter turnout was 43 percent, with just 13,606 registered voters participating.
Qatar has hosted U.S. military forces for a number of years, and the U.S. presence grew significantly after 2001. The country has faced severe criticism in the region for its ties to the United States and its tentative links with Israel. Qatar is deeply involved in regional politics. It provided military and political support for the 2011 revolution in Libya, and it has provided material support to opposition forces attempting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad in Syria. In November 2012, the Syrian National Council—the Syrian opposition’s primary political group—held four days of talks in Qatar’s capital, Doha to discuss overhauling its structure.
Qatar is not an electoral democracy. The head of state is the emir, whose family holds a monopoly on political power. The emir appoints the prime minister and cabinet, and also appoints an heir apparent after consulting with the ruling family and other notables. The constitution stipulates the formation of an elected parliament, the Advisory Council (Majlis Al-Shura). Elections are to be held for 30 of the 45 seats for 4-year terms, while the emir has the power to appoint the other 15 members. Although elections for this body were scheduled for 2010, Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani in 2011 again extended the existing 35-member Council’s current session until 2013; all its members are appointed. Central Municipal Council members, who are elected to serve four-year terms, enjoy limited powers.
Only a small percentage of the country’s population is permitted to vote or hold office. The government does not permit the existence of political parties.
Critics continue to complain of a lack of transparency in government procurement. However, Qatar was ranked 27 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index, tied with the United Arab Emirates as the best performer in the Middle East.
Although the constitution guarantees freedom of expression, both print and broadcast media content are influenced by leading families. Journalists practice a high degree of self-censorship and face possible jail sentences for slander. In June 2012, the Advisory Council approved a draft media law which was awaiting final approval by Sheikh Hamad at year’s end. The law would prevent journalists from being detained by authorities without a court order, and would allow them to protect their sources unless required to do so by a court. However, it also would impose fines of up to $275,000 for publishing or broadcasting material that criticizes the Qatari regime or its allies, insults the ruling family, or damages national interests. While state censorship is supposedly forbidden under the law, journalists would be required to obtain licenses and would be monitored by the Ministry of Arts, Heritage and Culture. In December, poet Mohamed Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami was sentenced to life in prison for insulting the emir after videos of him reciting his poetry were posted on the internet.
The top five daily newspapers are privately owned, but their owners and boards include members of the ruling family. Although the satellite television channel Al-Jazeera is privately held, the government has reportedly paid for the channel’s operating costs since its inception. As a result, Al-Jazeera rarely criticizes the ruling family. Qataris have access to the internet, but the government censors content and blocks access to sites that are deemed pornographic or politically sensitive.
Islam is Qatar’s official religion, though the constitution explicitly provides for freedom of worship. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs regulates clerical matters and the construction of mosques. Several churches have been built for Qatar’s Christian community in recent years. The constitution guarantees freedom of opinion and academic research, but scholars often practice self-censorship on politically sensitive topics.
While the constitution grants freedoms of assembly and association, these rights are limited in practice. Protests are rare, with the government restricting the public’s ability to organize demonstrations. In spite of early 2011 Facebook campaign efforts to mobilize protests in Qatar, the country did not experience the “Arab Spring” unrest that took place in other countries in the region during the year. In December 2012, the government permitted a 300-person demonstration calling for Arab leadership on climate change and for improved migrant worker rights. All nongovernmental organizations need state permission to operate, and the government closely monitors their activities. After hosting the 2007 Conference on Democracy and Reform in Doha, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs established the Arab Foundation for Democracy to monitor progress on reform in the region; Sheikh Hamad has contributed $10 million to the foundation. There are no independent human rights organizations, but a government-appointed National Human Rights Committee, which includes members of civil society and government ministries, investigates alleged abuses.
A 2005 labor law expanded some protections, but restricts the right to form unions and to strike. The only trade union allowed to operate in the country is the General Union of Workers of Qatar, which prohibits the membership of noncitizens or government sector employees. Foreign nationals comprise 94 percent of the workforce. Many foreign workers face economic abuses, including the withholding of salaries or contract manipulation, while others endure poor living conditions and excessive work hours. However, fear of job loss and deportation often prevents them from exercising their limited rights. Female domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. In order to support infrastructure projects in preparation for the 2022 World Cup, Qatar is projected to import over 1 million migrant laborers.
Despite constitutional guarantees, the judiciary is not independent in practice. The majority of Qatar’s judges are foreign nationals who are appointed and removed by the emir. The judicial system consists of Sharia (Islamic law) courts, which have jurisdiction over a narrow range of issues including family law, and civil law courts, which have jurisdiction over criminal, commercial, and civil cases. Although the constitution protects individuals from arbitrary arrest and detention and bans torture, a 2002 law allows the suspension of these guarantees for the “protection of society.” The law empowers the minister of the interior to detain a defendant for crimes related to national security on the recommendation of the director-general of public security.
While the constitution prohibits discrimination based on nationality, the government discriminates against noncitizens in the areas of education, housing, healthcare, and other services that are offered free of charge to citizens.
The constitution treats women as full and equal persons, and discrimination based on gender, country of origin, language, or religion is banned. In March 2010, Qatar swore in Sheikha Maha Mansour Salman Jassim al-Thani as its first woman judge. In 2006, Qatar implemented a codified family law, which regulates issues such as inheritance, child custody, marriage, and divorce. While this law offers more protections for women than they previously enjoyed, they continue to face some disadvantages, including societal discrimination, and few effective legal mechanisms are available for them to contest incidents of bias. Domestic violence is not criminalized and is prevalent. The Qatar Foundation for Child and Woman Protection has noted a significant increase in cases of violence since 2004. The proposed Qatari 2011-2016 National Development Strategy includes measures to better protect victims of abuse, including laws against domestic violence, increased legal protections for victims, and robust social support services. However, these measures had not been instituted as of 2012. Qatar is a destination for the trafficking of men and women, particularly for forced labor and prostitution.