Sunday, December 12, 2010

Qatari Press Freedom

Jennifer Lambert writes about the apparent decline of press freedom in Qatar:
"When Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani came to power in 1995, he took several steps to enhance Qatar’s image and differentiate it from neighboring Saudi Arabia. As part of this strategy, he declared an end to media censorship, closed the Ministry of Information, and helped personally fund the establishment of al-Jazeera in Doha. Al-Jazeera became increasingly popular as the first Arab satellite news channel to air critical coverage of Arab regimes and cover previously taboo topics. Several Arab regimes temporarily withdrew ambassadors from Qatar or shut down al-Jazeera bureaus. The Emir’s refusal to censor coverage, however, won the praise of international groups such as Reporters without Borders (RWB)...

"Several events in 2009, however, cast doubt on Qatar’s actual commitment to freedom of the press. Robert Ménard, then Director of the Doha Center for Media Freedom, became frustrated when the Qatari government refused to issue visas to threatened journalists, citing diplomatic concerns. He issued a public letter on the center’s website accusing members of the Qatari government of being unsupportive of the center’s mission.

"Then in May of 2009, Flemming Rose, the cultural editor who published cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in the Danish press, arrived in Doha as part of the UNESCO-sponsored conference. His attendance sparked outrage among some Qataris, and Ménard received most of the blame. A Doha mosque denounced the media center in Friday prayers. The Qatari daily al-Watan accused Ménard of inviting “Satan” to Doha and insulting all Muslims. In June, a member of Qatar’s Advisory Council (a 35-member legislative body appointed by the Emir) called for Ménard’s dismissal, and Ménard resigned...

"The Advisory Council passed a new media law imposing stiff fines and a one-year jail term for any journalist who slandered the ruler or threatened national security, religion, or the Qatari Constitution. Editor-in-Chief Khalid al-Sayed of the Qatari daily The Peninsula issued a front page criticism in June 2009, writing 'We find it strange that the Advisory Council, made up of Qatari nationals, has this kind of opinion when His Highness the Emir has given us the freedom to voice our opinion on issues freely and in a fair manner.' The law was left unsigned by the Emir, and to date, the only official media law in the country is still the 1979 Press and Publications Law."

Lambert's piece looks toward the forthcoming unveiling of Qatar's new media law, which some fear could codify the red lines that currently exist only via self-censorship. What it reminds me of is an article by Mehran Kamrava in the Summer 2009 Middle East Journal entitled "Royal Factionalism and Political Liberalization in Qatar." Kamrava's argument is that Emir Hamad's push for political liberalization has been part of a larger strategy seeking political legitimacy by casting himself as the guarantor of the country's path to modernization, and that as his power within Qatar has become more secure, he has less need of it. As Qatar is the home of trend-setting satellite new network al-Jazeera, this could have repercussions for the broader Arab media environment.

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