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November 24, 2009 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 558

Qatar Responds to Report on Its Lack of Media Freedom

November 24, 2009 | By E. B. Picali*
Qatar, The Gulf | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 558

Introduction

In October 2008, Qatar opened the Doha Center for Media Freedom, which aims to support and defend media institutions and journalists worldwide, and to promote dialogue between the Arab world and the West, as well as dialogue within the Arab world. This was a joint initiative by French journalist Robert Menard, former secretary-general of the Paris-based organization Journalists without Borders, and Sheikha Moza, wife of the Qatari Emir and chair of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development. The center was founded under Sheikha Moza's sponsorship, and Menard was appointed as its director. Its advisory council is headed by Qatari Culture Minister Hamad 'Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Kawari, and its 20-member board of directors, which includes political figures and intellectuals from around the world, is headed by Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer Al-Thani, who is also the director of the board of Al-Jazeera TV.

In an interview with the French-language Lebanese daily L'Orient le Jour, Menard explained that he chose to establish a media center in the Arab world in light of the severe tensions prevailing in that region, and that he chose Qatar because it was willing to finance the center - and also because it is the only Arab country that allows entry to journalists from all over the world. [1]

In February 2009, the center published its first report, titled "Press Freedom in the Middle East and North Africa." Considered to be the first of its kind in the Arab world, the report was posted in Arabic, English and French on the center's website, www.dohacentre.org (the English text is available here ). It harshly criticizes the lack of press freedom in all the countries examined, including Gaza, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, the UAE, Bahrain, Algeria, Iraq, Kuwait, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Israel, Iran, Tunisia, Syria, Oman, Lebanon, Libya, Egypt, Mauritania and also Qatar.

The report provoked a wave of responses in the Arab and Qatari press, most of them negative. This and subsequent incidents created tension between Menard and the Qatari authorities, which eventually led to Menard's resignation on June 23, 2009.

This document focuses on the report's criticism of Qatar - the country that is hosting the center and financing it - and on the Qatari responses to this criticism.

Qatar Allows Criticism - But Only of Other Regimes

The report states that the Qatari media, including Al-Jazeera TV, is subjected to censorship by the state, and that journalists' employment depends on their willingness to keep silent about certain topics, as dictated by the Qatari prime minister. At the same time, Qatar allows and even encourages free coverage and criticism of other Arab regimes. The report also denounces Qatari publishing law, its ban on journalists' unions in the country, and its requirement that journalists hand their passports over to their editors so that the latter can supervise their movements. In an interview with the German news agency DPA, Menard threatened that if by May 2009 Qatar has not amended to constitution to eliminate the prohibition on journalists unions, the center would be shut down. [2]

Tensions Between the Center and the Qatari Authorities and Local Press

The publication of the report, as well as other incidents, [3] created tension between the center and the Qatari authorities and broad sectors of the Qatari public. In a March 16, 2009 open letter to Sheikha Moza, Menard wrote, "[For a month now,] associates of yours and people whom you appointed to the center's [supervisory council and board of directors] have been trying to disrupt [its activity], and to limit our independence and [freedom of] movement in various ways. [Therefore], I officially request that you honor the values and principles that led to the establishment of the center." [4]

After that, relations between the center and the authorities appeared to improve. In a May 4, 2009 interview with the London daily Al-Hayat, Menard said: "In our recent report, we harshly criticized the state of press freedom in Qatar… Some in Doha were angered by this, but the authorities constantly reaffirm the center's independence and its right - even its duty - to pass criticism…" [5]

However, on June 23, 2009, during a visit to Paris by the Qatari Emir and his wife, Menard and his staff resigned from the center. In a statement, he explained that Qatari officials, including Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer, were unwilling to tolerate the existence of a free and independent organization which criticizes not only other countries but also their own, and that, contrary to Qatar's claims, these officials were obstructing the center's activity. [6] On a later occasion, he added that from the very start, various elements, and especially Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer, wanted to subordinate the center to a steering committee headed by representatives of the Qatari Emir - which would have meant total dependence on the authorities. Menard added: "I wanted to be optimistic, even though this part of the world is [characterized] by the toughest policies of oppression." [7]

Responses to the Report

The tension between the center and the Qatari authorities was clearly reflected in the Qatari papers, most of which ignored large parts of the report. Some of the articles also contained personal attacks on Menard, or accused him of promoting licentiousness that contravenes the values of Arab and Muslim society. Others rejected the report's findings altogether, and advised Menard to direct his criticism at Israel and the West, or pointed out that Qatar and its press could get along very well without him.

Al-Watan: Menard Is Promoting Licentiousness, Not Press Freedom

In a May 13, 2009 editorial in the Qatari daily Al-Watan, the daily's chief supervisor, Ahmad 'Ali, lambasted Menard for trying to impose Western-style freedom of expression on a Muslim society whose values differ from those of the West. He wrote: "Every nation has [its own] understanding and perception of freedom, in accordance with its customs and traditions… It is inconceivable to argue that the French [perception of this term] is 'correct' while the Qatari perception is 'wrong.'" Responding to Menard's statement on World Press Freedom Day, that "[True] freedom [includes] the freedom to criticize religions," 'Ali said that this is a call to anarchy, and that "responsible freedom does not [include] allowing the media to harm spiritual values and religious symbols." [8] In an interview with the daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi, 'Ali stated that the report included many false claims and interpretations that were far removed from reality, and that Menard was therefore harming Qatar. [9]

Jaber Al-Harami, editor of the Qatari daily Al-Sharq, responded to Menard's complaint that the Dubai chief of police had ordered that 500 search terms be blocked on Google. [10] In an April 19, 2009 editorial, he wrote: "Menard's declaration [criticizing this decision] is a call for licentiousness… To allow licentious websites to prosper and [remain] unblocked is to undermine the values, customs, and traditions of our society and our religion." [11]

Qatari Journalist: Qatar's Attitude Is Hypocritical

A different view was voiced in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Qabas by Qatari journalist Noura Al-Sa'd. She argued that Qatar's conduct was hypocritical: [12] On the one hand, it sponsored institutions and conferences dealing with press freedom, but on the other hand it prevented the journalists in the country from forming a union. Al-Sa'd wrote: "...Menard has initiated [a debate] on painful issues in the Gulf states, whose regimes boast about [promoting] reforms, modernization and even democracy…" About the accusation that Menard is promoting licentiousness, she said that it was nothing more than an attempt to stir up the public's emotions and to distract it from the real problem. [13]

Al-Sa'd added that the center's report was accurate in describing the Qatari press as recruited, rather than independent. This, she said, is evident from its conduct, and especially from the responses of the chief editors to the center's activity and to its critical report. She asked: "...Are we really to believe that the Qatari press is free, and that its editors express their own opinions rather than the official line [of the regime]? [Are we really to believe] that the campaign they launched [against the center] so suddenly and at such a strange time… was prompted by a [real] need and not by orders [from above]?" [14] Al-Sa'd accused Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jasim bin Jaber Al-Thani of being behind the attack on the center: "I have heard that the prime minister owns Qatar's three major papers, so it is fair to assume that [he] is responsible for this attack, in some way or other…" [15]

* E. B. Picali is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.

Endnotes:

[1] www.menassat.com, June 10, 2008.

[2] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 10, 2009.

[3] On April 24, 2008, Qatar became the first Arab country to host UNESCO's World Press Freedom Day, in partnership with the Doha Center for Media Freedom and under the sponsorship of Sheikha Moza. The conference, held under the title "The Potential of Media in Fostering Dialogue, Mutual Understanding, and Reconciliation," was attended by Danish journalist Flemming Rose, editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which published the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in September 2005. His presence provoked widespread protest in Qatar, including from clerics such as Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi (www.islamonline.net, May 8, 2009), and demands to fire Menard from his post (www.islamouna.info, May 7, 2009).

On March 3, 2009, the center expressed concern about Qatar's Supreme Council of Information & Communication Technology intention to conduct a survey among Internet users in the country, which would form the basis for regulations obligating the Internet Service Providers to block websites featuring "inappropriate content and immoral activity." The center warned that this survey could be used as a pretext for blocking various websites (Al-Quds Al-Arabi, London, March 4, 2009).

[4] Al-Khaleej (UAE), March 17, 2009 (as quoted by French news agency AFP). The letter was published in response to Qatar's refusal to grant temporary asylum to journalists whose lives were under threat. On March 24, 2009, the center issued a communiqué in a similar vein after the Qatari authorities prohibited one of the center's journalists from leaving the country (Al-Quds Al-Arabi, London, March 25, 2009).

[5] Al-Hayat (London), May 4, 2009.

[6] www.elaph.com, June 24, 2009, June 25, 2009.

[7] www.elaph.com, June 24, 2009, June 25, 2009.

[8] Al-Watan (Qatar), May 13, 2009.

[9] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), February 11, 2009.

[10] For a response by the Dubai police chief himself, see www.middle-east-online.com, April 23, 2009; Al-Sharq (Qatar), May 12, 2009.

[11] Al-Sharq (Qatar), April 19, 2009.

[12] For an article harshly criticizing the double standards of the Qatari Emir and Sheikha Moza, by the editor of the Egyptian government daily Al-Gumhouriyya, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 2258, "Egyptian Press Attacks Qatar," February 24, 2009, Egyptian Press Attacks Qatar.

[13] Al-Qabas (Kuwait), May 9, 2009, May 2, 2009.

[14] Al-Qabas (Kuwait), April 25, 2009.

[15] Al-Qabas (Kuwait), May 9, 2009.


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