Freedom of the Press
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 jail sentences for libel. 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 jailing 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. Multiple provisions would regulate online media. Although the cabinet endorsed the bill in June, it had not yet been enacted at the end of the year.
All publications are subject to licensing by the government. The government, the Qatar Radio and Television Corporation, and customs officers are authorized to censor domestic and foreign publications as well as broadcast media for religious, political, and sexual content prior to distribution. Self-censorship is reportedly widespread. Sultan al-Khalaifi, a democracy and human rights activist and blogger, was detained by security forces in March 2011, presumably for posting criticism of the Qatari government online. He was released in April without charge. Foreigners make up 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 they push 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. In April 2011, two Swiss television journalists filming a report on preparations for soccer’s 2022 World Cup were arrested, interrogated, and prevented from leaving Qatar for 13 days. The crew’s employer, Radio Télévision Suisse, said the two journalists had received prior authorization to develop the report on the World Cup preparations. They never received an explanation for their arrest and were released only after the intervention of the Swiss ambassador.
The Doha Center for Media Freedom (DCMF) opened in 2008 under the patronage of the emir’s wife and with the support of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), an international press freedom watchdog group. Its mission was to provide physical protection to journalists, including safe houses and bulletproof vests. Former RSF director Robert Ménard was appointed to lead the DCMF. However, he wrote a public letter in February 2009 decrying Qatar’s oppressive media law and taking issue with the government’s refusal to extend visas to foreign journalists who were threatened in their own countries. In March of that year, a reporter working for the DCMF was barred from leaving the country to attend a meeting abroad. In May 2009, Ménard invited a controversial Danish editor—who in 2005 had published a series of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten—to a conference in Doha marking World Press Freedom Day. This drew public condemnation from government officials and domestic media outlets, and the Advisory Council called for Ménard’s dismissal. He and several staff members resigned in June 2010, and RSF ended its relationship with the DCMF. Since April 2011, the DCMF has been led by Jan Keulen, a veteran Dutch journalist, media educator, and press freedom advocate, who began advocating a new legal framework for media in Qatar shortly after his arrival. Keulen said he had a free hand to develop the DCMF.
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.
Approximately 86 percent of the population used the internet in 2011. The government censors political, religious, and pornographic content through the sole, state-owned internet service provider. 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 the country.