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Friday, October 15, 2021

DCMF director: Advocating media freedom in Qatar ‘a balancing act’



While working on an article about free speech in the region, Doha-based Canadian journalist Mark Anderson recently sat down with Jan Keulen, director of the Doha Centre for Media Freedom.

During the interview, Keulen opens up about the state of Qatar’s media, balancing the need to be outspoken with the desire to keep his center open, and his thoughts on the “frightening” draft cybercrime law. Below are some excerpts of the interview. Read the full piece here.

What is the role of the Doha Centre for Media Freedom?

We are a press freedom organization so we are supportive of media freedom in Qatar—but not only in Qatar. Our mandate concerns the whole world, but we are focusing very much on this region. The Doha Centre is also about good journalism because we think the two issues are very much linked. We are engaged in journalistic training.

Could you say more about the media literacy program you discussed recently in the Gulf Times?

It is separate from our journalism training program. Media freedom is not just an issue of politicians, it’s not just a legal issue, and it’s not just a question of the journalists. It is an important issue for the entire public. In order to create a culture of media freedom, the people, the media consumers, should be aware of how journalism is working: what press freedom means. People are online all the time in the Gulf.

We have one of the highest rates of online usage so we think it is very important for the younger generation to be media literate. In the industrialized world, these concepts are integrated in the school curriculum.

Here in Qatar, that is not the case. Now we are advocating to have media literacy integrated into the Qatari school curriculum. This advocacy is one of the things we are doing, but we are also advocating by doing. We are implementing workshops and media literacy activities in a large number of schools in Qatar. Students produce their own school newspapers, videos, and websites. Our media literacy program is very much learning by doing.

There has been criticism of the local media for their failure to cover of issues like workers’ rights or the Villaggio Mall fire, where 19 people died last year. What do you feel is lacking in the media in Qatar?

There are many areas in which the Qatari media is lacking. There is a lack of investigative reporting. There is also a lack of different journalistic genres. You hardly ever see a good interview or an exciting feature story.

This can be summed up as an overall lack of journalistic development. In a way, this is not surprising. The first newspaper in Qatar was established in the ’70s – the same for the first radio station. So you have a very young media landscape.

On the other hand, it’s a very weird media landscape because obviously this country became famous through Al Jazeera. We have one of the most influential and famous media companies in the world based here in Qatar, a company that’s a world apart with its own norms and its own rules.

Internally, the local media are staying behind. There are different reasons for this. One of the reasons is the lack of a proper legal framework for the media. Qatar is developing in so many ways, in education, in sport, you see new high rises every day – but media is a strategic sector and there are very few Qataris working in this sector. They are giving this strategic sector away to expats. I believe this would be an issue for any country. But I do understand why there is a certain reluctance and a certain restraint in opening up. Overall, I think most people agree that local media are choosing to stay behind and could be doing a much better job.

Do you have to be cautious?

(Laughs) (Long pause)

I think to be credible as a media freedom organization, we have to speak out from time to time. It is very easy to speak out about issues outside of Qatar, but nobody is going to believe us if we keep our mouths shut when it regards Qatari issues.

So that’s why I’m speaking out to you about issues of local media. And that’s why we spoke out in the past few days about the proposed cybercrime law. That doesn’t mean that we are not cautious from time to time.

We have to be credible, but we also have to be effective. In order to be effective, sometimes it’s better not to speak, to keep back for a while or to use other channels to address the issue. In that sense, yes, I do have to be cautious.

It’s a balancing act. I’m not an activist, I’m not a revolutionary. At the Doha Centre we honestly and genuinely want to contribute to improve the Qatari media.

Can you comment on the new cybercrime law?

First of all, we haven’t seen the law—we only have what Qatar News Agency is telling us so I haven’t even read the whole text of this draft law. Here again, I have to be a little bit cautious (laughs), but what I read I did not like.

It seems to me the law is putting all kinds of different issues in one bag. Yes, of course, cybercrime has to be fought and that’s a real issue. We are in a country with a fantastic broadband system and everything is online. We know there is cybercrime, bank fraud etcetera.

Even at the Doha Centre we are often working with politically- sensitive issues, like the uprising in Syria or supporting journalists in trouble. So we have to protect ourselves as well. It is a real issue.

But when it comes to freedom of expression on the Internet and new stipulations regarding the security of the state and social values, we become a bit afraid. It is all put very vaguely; this draft raises a number of questions. The big questions are why now and why combine these issues with cybercrime?

The most contentious parts of the new draft law don’t seem to have much to do with cybercrime.

Yes. Part of the draft law reads, “The law also punishes anyone who infringes on the social principles or values or otherwise publishes news, photos, audio or visual recordings related to the sanctity of the private and familial life of persons, even if they were true, or infringes on others by libel or slander via the Internet or other information technology.”

That little phrase in the draft law “even if they were true” is very frightening. This is killing investigative journalism on the Internet – it makes it potentially impossible. It depends of course on how the government would apply such a law. Potentially, it could be very dangerous.

It could also be very damaging for the reputation and image of Qatar. Of course, this draft law comes in the context of countries in the region, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, who are trying to control the Internet in very radical ways.

We don’t want Qatar to go the same way. Over the weekend, I saw a great deal of activity on the Internet: on blogs, forums, and tweets. Many people actually agree with us at the Doha Centre on this issue. And they are as scared as we are.

I think it is probably easier for us as Westerners, because our being jailed would become an international incident. You describe the need for a greater Qatari participation in the local media, but isn’t it also more dangerous for them to do so?

Yes…maybe. You know it’s a strange country. The Qatari community do speak out, but they do it on the Internet. There are a lot of personalities here that have blogs under a different name but everybody knows who they are.

There is a lot of discussion going on and nothing bad comes of it. This is not a police state—there is a difference there with a country like Malawi. It’s a very small community of Qataris, only 250,000 people. As small as it is, there are many different opinions. This is a traditional tribal society – part of the leadership is running very quickly in front of the people. Others are going more slowly.

I don’t find Qataris very fearful, those who have strong opinions, there aren’t that many, but I know some of them, and they do express themselves. They might lose their jobs, but that’s not as dramatic as it would be in some other countries. Even some former editors, they lost their jobs but they are not in prison. And now they are expressing themselves on the Internet.

Is the free press moving in a positive direction? What is the way forward?

The way forward is to have a modern law regulating the media. The fact is that we are waiting: the law has been adopted by the Shura Council, but the law has not come to pass as it has not yet been signed by the Emir.

This can be read in different ways: it can be read to mean that there is an awareness in some areas that this is not the press law Qatar has been waiting for. I am advocating a modern press law that is focused on the future.

Another step would be to develop a comprehensive plan of how to involve more Qataris in local media: how to make better use of the great educational facilities that are here, such as Northwestern and Qatar University. We need a plan which takes into account the needs of Qatar.

They have great plans for education, great plans for constructing museums, great plans for sports, such as the World Cup in 2022. So why not have a plan for local media? It should take into account all aspects: to be a comprehensive plan. We can help and the other media institutions can help.

The plan should take into account Qatari characteristics. This is a Muslim country; it is an Arab country. They’ve come a long way in a short time. They have their views. They have their aspirations. Those issues should be taken into account. This is the way I see it; a short fix is not possible.

But don’t go backwards. Don’t go for the easy way of controlling the media by making restrictive laws.

Read the full interview below:


Credit: Photo by Omar Chatriwala

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