The Al Jazeera Media Network marked its 18th anniversary yesterday with a symposium on the safety and security of journalists, even as critics say press freedoms are eroding in its home base of Qatar.
That’s because new laws have been introduced here and in other countries that place restrictions on the content individuals can publish online. Elsewhere in the Middle East, such provisions have been used against people who are critical of the government.
Weighing in on Qatar’s new laws, the acting head of Al Jazeera said he generally disagrees with such approaches, adding that authorities should “not blame the messenger” for reporting on sensitive, but legitimate, topics in a responsible manner.
The plight of several Al Jazeera journalists has raised awareness of how some Arab governments have sought to quiet journalists reporting on upheaval in their countries.
Yesterday’s conference, which was hosted by Al Jazeera’s public liberties and human rights department, came as the broadcaster continues to demand the release of three of its journalists jailed in Cairo.
Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed were arrested in December 2013 and sentenced to jail terms in June on charges of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, a now-banned organization in Egypt. The network denies the allegations, and an appeal of their conviction has been scheduled for Jan. 1, 2015.
The men were also found guilty of spreading false news and endangering national security – offenses that are now also illegal in Qatar’s digital realm under this country’s new cybercrime law.
The wide-ranging legislation also covers acts that were already outlawed such as possessing child pornography and hacking into government networks. But it has mostly been criticized for the content provisions, with human rights organizations saying the law’s passage was a “major setback for freedom of expression in Qatar.”
However, some residents said the provisions are welcome if authorities use their new powers judiciously.
In an interview with Doha News late last month, Mostefa Souag – Al Jazeera’s acting director-general – said the network opposes any restrictions placed on professional, objective journalists. When asked specifically about Qatar’s cybercrime law, Souag said:
“We are against any kind of limitation or oppression of media freedom, in any country … If you as a government are doing something wrong and (media) institutions are reporting it, then you have to review yourself, review your policies (and) not blame the messenger.”
Speaking more generally about working in the region, Souag said journalists are bound to encounter challenges when reporting on events and opinions that are unpopular with government authorities:
“We understand that being in the Middle East … (and) being an independent and free media (outlet) is not an easy thing. Being courageous (and) brave, digging and looking for the truth in order to show it to the rest of the world – and especially to the citizens of (that particular) country – when you show corruption (or) give the chance for the opposition to talk, you are always going to find problems. This is the way things are done in most of the Middle East.”
What is false news?
While other countries have used “false news” laws to prosecute journalists, Qatar’s vaguely worded provisions provided few clues about how local authorities intend to use their new powers.
Last month, Qatar’s country’s former justice minister told Doha News that the country passed the new law to comply with an agreement among Gulf states to criminalize online insults of the region’s royal families.
And last week, Qatar’s prime minister framed the new cybercrime legislation as a counterterrorism measure in an op-ed published in the Guardian newspaper in the UK.
Under the headline, “Qatar and the UK stand together in the fight against terrorism,” Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani wrote that Qatar’s new cybercrime law “gives our government new powers to monitor and stop terrorist groups from promoting their activities or recruiting for their causes online.”
Such claims have failed to appease critics such as Human Rights Watch, which called on Qatar to repeal its cybercrime law – among other measures – as part of its ultimately successful candidacy for a seat on the UN’s Human Rights Council.