Qatar block on news website dovetails with activist group's critique
Qatar plays favorites, Freedom House said in a press freedom analysis about Qatar, issued in 2015.
"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," the Freedom House report said.
That is proving true for Doha News, which on Wednesday found itself blocked in that country. The news site, in a statement, has accused the Qatar government of blocking its website.
"We are incredibly disappointed with this decision, which appears to be an act of censorship," the Doha News statement said. "We believe strongly in the importance of a free press and are saddened that Qatar, home of the Doha Center for Media Freedom and Al Jazeera, has decided to take this step."
The human rights watchdog Amnesty International called it an "alarming setback for freedom of expression in the country."
"Deliberately blocking people in Qatar from accessing a legitimate news website would be an outright attack on media freedom," Amnesty International Deputy Director for Global Issues James Lynch said in The New Arab news website, based in the United Kingdom. "As the nation that founded the al-Jazeera media network and which hosts a center dedicated to promoting global media freedom, Qatar should be at the forefront of those championing freedom of the press."
Qatar, which has issued no statement about Doha News’ allegations, has not been a bastion of press freedom, according to Freedom House's 2015 report on Qatar. On paper, Qatar seems to assure freedom of the press within its borders. Article 47 of its constitution assures freedom of expression, but with the caveat of those freedoms being “according to circumstances and conditions” as prescribed by Qatar law.
In practice, it's very difficult to be an independent news site, like Doha news, in that country, the Freedom House report says.
"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 report said. "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 pro-government perspectives, Al-Jazeera focuses its coverage on regional and global news, providing only sparse and uncritical reports on local issues."
Local radio programming also offers little criticism of government services and operations, the Freedom House report said.
"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," the report said. "The Internet has become a major source of news and information in Qatar, and approximately 91 percent of the population accessed the medium in 2014."
In 2011, Qatar's appointed legislative body, the Advisory Council, drafted a new press law to eliminate imprisonment penalties for journalists accused of defamation, prohibit the questioning of journalists without a court order and permit journalists to keep sources confidential unless ordered by a court. The draft law, which also included other press-friendly provisions, has never been approved.
The government did approve a new cyber crime law in September of 2014 that restricts online freedom of speech, with maximum punishments that include three years in prison and a fine of up to 500,000 Qatari riyals, or $137,000. All publications are subject to Qatar government licensing.
"Self-censorship is reportedly widespread, although Doha News has been able to publish content critical of the government without interference or reprisal," the 2015 Freedom House report said. "The Qatari media largely ignored a 2012 fire in the popular Villagio shopping center in Doha that killed 19 people, including 13 children. Local outlets were reportedly ordered by a court to refrain from covering the trial of those held responsible for the blaze. The accused included a member of the ruling family, Sheikh Ali bin Jassim al-Thani, who owned the child care center where many victims became trapped, and his wife, who managed the center."
Doha News' imprudent lack of self-censorship in its reporting about the blaze led to problems for the news site, the Freedom House report said.
"The Doha News published an article examining the government’s failures in responding to the disaster," the report said. "The judge presiding over the case did not allow Doha News staff to attend the trial, stating that only 'official' media outlets could access the proceedings. Local media did not cover later parts of the trial, although no official reason was given."
Websites can be banned under Qatar's 2014 Cyber Crimes Law if government authorities consider a site's content to be a threat to that nation's safety. The law also contains provisions for prosecution over online posts that undermine the country's social values and general order. That might be what has lead to Doha News' latest troubles.
In August, Doha News published an article about the struggles of being gay in Qatar, where sodomy laws punish homosexual acts with up to three years in prison.
In October, Doha News published an op-ed piece that alleged the Cyber Crimes Law is being exploited by criminals and individuals with personal agendas to silence others.
Doha News was blocked without warning in that country, and the government's silence is only prompting people to talk about it, officials at the news site said.
"This can already be seen on Twitter," Doha News said in its statement. "The hashtag #???_????_????_???? (Doha News website ban) is already being used by residents to discuss the issue in Arabic; hundreds more are speculating about what happened in English. The ubiquitous nature of the Internet makes it impossible to hide when decisions are not transparent. We hope that the Qatari authorities will reconsider their decision and unblock our site."