By MOBIN PANDIT & AHMED EL AMIN
DOHA: Recently, a number of popular Qatari columnists abruptly stopped writing for a local Arabic daily and instead began contributing to a rival newspaper.
Never before in the history of Qatari media had such a mass switch taken place, so readers were surprised. The incident triggered a debate in the community over whether the media in Qatar was really free.
It turned out that the columnists were not able to express themselves freely on issues of local significance and their writings were consigned to the dustbin. So they were prompted to switch to the other daily in the hope that they would enjoy freedom.
One of the columnists — a woman — was, for instance, not allowed to write critically even about the Central Municipal Council (CMC), which is an elected body and whose members are picked by voters in a democratic process every
The CMC was, in fact, the first crucial step Qatar took with much fanfare in early 1999 towards achieving its cherished goal of democratising its polity.
Since free expression is one of the cornerstones of democracy, people feel — and rightly so — that the civic body should be open to media scrutiny.
The impression one gathers from the writings of the columnists in question is that some individuals and not the system is largely to blame for putting curbs on the media.
In the case of the columnists, it was the editor-in-chief of the newspaper concerned who is alleged to have imposed restrictions on their writings and discouraged critical treatment of subjects he thought would “cause trouble” for him.
“The editors-in-chief practice self-censorship as their main aim is to stick to their chair,” wrote Mariam Al Saad, one of the “affected” columnists.
The government has every right to vet the choice of a citizen to be editor-in-chief of a newspaper but it must be made sure that he at least has the basic qualifications for the job. “An editor-in-chief should be flexible, self-confident, aware and able to manage the newspaper,” she wrote in a recent column.
Editors-in-chief consider themselves to be more patriotic than the king and holier than thou, she said.
Another of these columnists, Mohamed Al Kubaisi, was so bitter about the whole issue that he wrote that he thought there was hardly any media freedom in the country.
“Robert Menard of Reporters Without Borders fame, while setting up the ‘Doha Center for Media Freedom’, said that he was establishing the Qatari chapter of his organisation because he thought Qatar had freer media in this part of the world. But I think the situation as regards media freedom here is just the reverse,” moaned Al Kubaisi.
One of the boldest Qatari journalists, Abdullah Al Azba, told The Peninsula in what was scathing criticism of editors-in-chief that their only concern was to retain their plush and prestigious jobs. “They practice self-censorship, which is unjustified,” he said of them point blank.
People have for long wondered why freedom still eludes the Qatari media if the country’s top leadership had lifted media censorship by disbanding the ministry of information way back in 1995.
“We finally have the answer and it comes from the horse’s mouth. It is the editors-in-chief who are largely to blame for the malaise,” said a journalist on grounds of anonymity. “If an editor-in-chief seriously wants a news item to appear in his newspaper nobody can stop him,” he added.
Next come the managing editors and news editors — the sidekicks of the chief editors — who carry out the diktats of their Qatari bosses. They are no less to blame for discouraging critical writing since their main objective is to retain their job and maximise their savings.
Most foreign journalists working in the Gulf stand no chance of landing a job in the outside world — even in their home countries, says a media expert. “It’s a vicious nexus. The editors have their own agenda, which suits their expatriate subordinates quite well,” said a local media analyst not wanting to be identified.
One occasionally hears stories of clashes between Qatari chief editors and their deputies — expatriate managing editors — but they are mostly ego tussles and nothing to do with their differences over professional matters, media sources swear. “Quality journalism is a casualty, as a result.”
But journalists who would like to see an improvement in the situation blame the present malaise largely on the absence of a media law in Qatar. Reporters are viewed as an easy prey by those who disapprove of or are offended by their writings.
In countries which have media freedom and extensive laws to protect the media, defamation suits are filed against reporters and their newspapers directly by those aggrieved.
In Qatar, however, the situation is different in the absence of a media law. Here, anybody can simply file a complaint with the police against a reporter and his newspaper.
The police then call the reporter and question him in a harassing way, and if they (the police) feel there is merit in the complaint, the journalist is referred to the Public Prosecution for further questioning.
Since it is the prosecution’s prerogative to refer a matter to court, many complaints against journalists do not reach the court at all and end up in journalists being harassed and humiliated rather than being put on a fair trial.
Many a time prosecution officials call a journalist concerned at 5am, when he is in the middle of sleep.
The entire process is so harrowing and humiliating for a journalist that he chickens out when it comes to writing critically on issues.
Since most journalists in Qatar are foreigners, they obviously want to stay clear of trouble, say media sources. “No one would, obviously, want to be treated like a criminal for writing critically,” says a journalist who was once called by the police for questioning in a defamation-related complaint.
And even if a journalist shows guts and is willing to do critical or informative writing, he has no access to officials to get basic information.
This is the reason media circles say they are desperate to see an extensive media law being put in place so that the vested interests are not able to harass journalists through the police.
The so-called Doha Centre for Media Freedom, which apparently continues to exist despite its leading light Robert Menard having left the country long ago, continually issues statements denouncing mistreatment of journalists around the world but has never bothered to look into the woes of local scribes. Earlier, it even ran shelters for foreign journalists facing threats in their home countries.
People have been hearing for many years now that a new media law is on the anvil but nobody knows why it is being delayed. About a year ago, when the State Cabinet discussed the draft of the “proposed law”, expectations were galore that it could see the light of day soon. But the legislation still remains in the pipeline.
Newspapers are at best a business in Qatar with their owners eventually looking for profits. The largest circulated newspapers thrive mostly on handouts and press releases, which are either in praise of a person or institution or other entity or sales promotions.
Critical writing is missing from the newspapers partly because there is no will on the part of the journalists to be critical and informative as also due to under-qualified and untrained scribes manning the dailies.
Businesses as well as institutions are owned by influential people, so they are treated as holy cows, and there is also the advertisement interest involved.
Business newspapers are the preserve of a few influential people and permissions to launch new publications — whether dailies or periodicals — are hard to get. Launching private radio and television stations is, similarly, out of question.
Attempts are now being made to monopolise even the advertising business. This is ironical considering that the government has been talking of breaking monopolies and encouraging a free market economy.
The Al Jazeera network is often cited as an example of free media in Qatar. But, of late, the famous TV station has been at the receiving end on Qatari social networking sites. It is being criticised for focusing too much on the outside world and ignoring the very country of its birth — Qatar.
Critics say there are enough areas in Qatar which require media attention. From delays in holding parliamentary elections to loopholes in the public health and educations sectors, there are issues that need to be raised. Then there are cases involving official corruption being heard by Qatari courts.
Al Jazeera is at the receiving end also because of what viewers in the country claim is its “poor” coverage of public protests in neighbouring Bahrain and Oman. Some say they are “perplexed” by the unevenness of the channel’s coverage — it is zealous in some countries and uninspiring in others.
According to analysts, the problem in this part of the world is that people like to have democracy in their midst but at the same time they abhor criticism. Free expression being an indispensable feature of a democratic polity, it is thus hard to see a democracy at work without people being allowed freedom of speech.
But since Qatar is signatory to a number of international conventions and quite keen to democratise its polity, analysts say they expect the country to take a lead in the Arab world as a pioneer of free expression.