THE ISSUE: Why are we so timid?

March 04, 2011 - 11:23:04 pm

Freedom eludes the Qatari media even as the country’s top leadership is keen to promote free expression and has lifted all kinds of restrictions on the local press.

The sincerity of the leadership about having free expression in the country is also evident in their interaction with the foreign media. They are quite open and forthcoming even on issues that the local press considers sensitive and taboo.

What essentially ails the Qatari media (English and Arabic-language newspapers) is the absence of a comprehensive law that specifies its role in a clear-cut way and seeks to protect it against the people and interests opposed to free expression or those who cannot appreciate criticism even if it is healthy and impersonal.

The culture in the country is such that people tend to take criticism as personal even if it is objective and directed at institutions and procedures.

The situation, however, is changing. And fast. With the new generation having the privilege of higher education and wider exposure, people are found taking active part in debates on social networking sites on key issues that concern them.

This leaves many wondering as to why when these networking sites can raise issues that are sensitive and taboo, the local media keep shying away from them.

The problem with local journalists, insiders would tell, is that they suffer due to a severe lack of information flow. Government officials are hard to access and open sources virtually non-existent so scribes are often forced to base their stories on half-truths in the absence of details.

This leads to confusion and readers are sometime left misguided. As an example, reports of crime and corruption are accessed by the local media through the courts whereas they should be sourced directly from the law-enforcement departments concerned, which is the case in most countries around the world except, perhaps, in the GCC member states.

Kuwait is the only country in the region where the local media focuses amply on financial corruption. In Qatar, reporting on such issues is negligible even though many such cases are being heard by the courts.

Then there is the conflict of interest. The owner of a business, including the media, or the head of an institution is obviously an influential person so the entity cannot be criticised.

Newspapers are essentially a business, so they have to think many times over before writing critically of a business since advertisement (ad) interest is involved.

There have been instances where companies, and even public corporations and institutions, have stopped giving ads to a newspaper as “revenge” against critical writing.

So these businesses and institutions are treated as “holy cows”. Some institutions cannot be touched by newspapers for critical treatment because they are headed by highly influential people.

This must change if the media has to enjoy freedom which is its basic right. “And to solve this problem, commitment is required from the top,” says a senior Qatari journalist.

“What is needed is a change in the mindset. When you begin accepting healthy criticism as a way of progress and evolution, the problem of media freedom would be resolved automatically,” he adds.

“This is our second generation which is educated. Two and three generations hence, with increasing access to education things would be perfectly alright as healthy debate and criticism would be a way of life, which currently is the case with advanced nations,” says the Qatari scribe.

Qatar has already begun encouraging debate on issues that concern its polity and people and Doha Debates is part of this effort. “So, there is at least some progress,” the journalist argued.

Al Jazeera is hailed as an epitome of free media in the Arab world and beyond but critics say its so-called freedom and boldness would actually be put to test when the channel begins covering local issues.

Al Jazeera has, of late, been at the receiving end on Qatari social networking sites for focusing attention on the outside world and ignoring issues in the country of its birth.

Its coverage of events in neighbouring Bahrain and Oman has also left many viewers wondering if it is really objective in its treatment of developments in those countries.

Praised the world over for its boldness, the channel lacks the guts to cover sensitive issues in Qatar, for instance, say critics.

Al Jazeera is also accused of practicing double standards. A website which sometime ago talked of some appointment in the channel’s administration had to be closed down and its owners were taken to court.

So the local Arabic and English-language newspapers score over Al Jazeera in that they sometimes show the guts and can cover issues like corruption. Al Jazeera is thus not a good example at all while discussing media freedom in the Qatari context, say critics.