Early last month, a team of journalists from the Danish Broadcasting Corp. visited Qatar to film a documentary about the country’s preparations to host the 2022 World Cup. When they arrived at the Labor City housing project with their cameras, they were arrested by Qatari officials and taken away to a police station for a day of intense questioning.
In an opinion piece recently published by the Danish Broadcasting Corp. and shared here with permission, director and presenter Niels Borchert Holm recounts the experience.
We have only just reached Labor City when the white SUV pulls up behind us. The driver, wearing a thobe and aviator sunglasses, gets out and angrily tells us to stop filming. Having called his superior to the scene, he collects our passports and orders us to follow them to the police station.
We were in Doha to record a documentary for the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, DR2, about FIFA’s controversial choice of Qatar as host of the 2022 football World Cup.
After a brief drive, we arrive at a nondescript three-story building. The courtyard is lined with a row of SUVs, a shiny blue and gray Rolls-Royce parked in the middle.
We are led into an office with a third man, also in a thobe, behind his desk. A series of rapid fire questions follows: Who are you, what are you doing here, where is your permission?
Accused of trespass
We explain what is all true: That we’re journalists from the Danish Broadcasting Corp., on our way to film GULF Contracting Company laborers prepare for the Workers Cup final; that we’ve received permission to record from the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, the tournament organizers, and the coach of the team in question; that we’ve informed the Government Communications Office and PR-company Portland (Communication) of our plans.
The man behind the desk, who until now has only addressed his colleagues, replies in English: “You are at the police station. Don’t be afraid. We are doing this for the safety of our country. People cannot come and film here without permission. You have been trespassing.”
It turns out our permissions are not sufficient. Now our cell phones are taken, too. We’re brought outside again, where we sign a document allowing our car to be searched.
After this we are separated and put into different rooms of the police station, with no explanation of what is to come. Through windows we can see the Grand Mall just outside of Labor City, which houses around 40,000 workers from Nepal, Bangladesh, India and numerous African countries.
The austere conditions of migrant workers have become Qatar’s publicity Achilles heel, and it is what brought us to the country. It was our intention to cover the Workers Cup final and have a chance to speak with the people on whose backs the World Cup is being built.
‘Confessions’ in Arabic
That plan now seems somewhat naïve and not likely to pan out. After four hours of detention, it’s well past noon, and no one will tell us what is going on. What is our offense? Are there any charges against us? Will we be released soon?
Repeated requests that the policemen identify themselves are ignored; they are from the Criminal Investigations Department, they say. Can we have a copy of the legal documents, all of which are in Arabic, that we’re made to sign? “Sorry, no,” they reply.
The arresting officer returns carrying documents. These are your confessions, he says.
What? Confessions of what? Claiming to be translating, he reads aloud: “I have been filming in Qatar without a permission, and I have been trespassing.” We sign and leave our inked fingerprints on the documents.
By this time, we‘ve given up on claiming legal rights.
The reason given for our arrest – that we had permissions in the form of emails rather than printed copies – seems completely arbitrary, a pretense to detain and interrogate us.
It no longer feels conspiratorial to suspect a set-up: We had informed everyone and anyone of our plans to be here this morning, and the policeman was ready the second we entered the area.
Late in the afternoon we take turns in another round of interrogations. Four new men have arrived, and the interrogator does nothing to hide that his interest is different from simple police issues.
“Who paid you to come to Qatar? Why do you want to record the Workers Cup final? What is the message of your documentary?” We repeat that we want to depict the love of football among Qatar’s many workers.
Our answers don’t impress him, and he goes one step further, demanding names and information of people we’ve met with and recorded.
Again we ask about the identity of the interrogators. We represent the Ministry of Interior, that’s all you need to know, he replied.
Absurdly, the conversation then turns to journalistic standards and ethics.
Why are the media so critical of Qatar, he asks us. Why don’t journalists tell the positive stories? Well, one is tempted to reply, let’s start with this situation. Detaining journalists for days is hardly the way to achieve better coverage.
In the end, we’re made to handwrite a statement: I will not record interviews with workers, or film stadiums under construction in Qatar without government permission. Resigned, we sign and thumb-stamp another meaningless document.
Oh, just one more thing: the memory cards containing our recordings from that morning. “The Ministry of Interior” has decided to keep those.
Another period of waiting ensues. We’re in our tenth hour inside the police station. Our anxiety over the outcome keeps growing. If the goal of the day was to scare us, well, then mission accomplished.
Most likely, we think, we’ll get to spend the night in a cell. But then we’re gathered in the entry hall and brought back into the office of the police chief. The quartet from “the Ministry of Interior” has gone, leaving only the arresting officer to deal with us.
“You’ll be free to go in a moment,” he says. “Next time, you should really be more careful. We’re doing this to protect you.” He returns our passports and cell phones and follows us to our car, smiling.
Out in the street, we’re confused. What just happened? It’s evening and we drive back to our hotel. We buy tickets for the first morning flight out and pack our bags.
In the middle of the night we check out and go the airport, wary of being followed and concerned about whether we will get to leave the country. Is this now over?
Of course it is, everything went according to plan. Another crew of journalists goes home without evidence of how workers are treated in Qatar, and they’re not likely to return.
Having reflected on this experience, we have just a few simple questions for the Qatari authorities.
What is so important to hide about workers’ living and working conditions that it is better to jail and interrogate journalists, to confiscate their work?
And looking forward, what do you intend to do? Next time, you’ll be dealing with more than a small Danish film crew. If all goes according to plan, you’ll be welcoming thousands of journalists for the World Cup in six years.
What will you do then, lock up all ungrateful journalists? Or will the people who built your stadiums and infrastructure be put away?
Niels Borchert Holm is not the first foreign journalist to be apprehended in Qatar in recent times.
Last year, BBC journalists were arrested by Criminal Investigations Division (CID) officials in Doha’s Industrial Area. They were released without charge, but their equipment was seized and not returned.
A few months before that, German broadcast journalist Florian Bauer was also detained by police in Qatar. He was accused of filming without a permit. It took more than three weeks for his cellphone, laptop and external hard drive to be returned to him in Germany. His laptop had been damaged and his electronic devices had had their memories wiped, he said.
Bauer said Qatar state media authorities apologized for his ordeal and offered to pay for his hotel room and flight home, but he declined.
Holm, meanwhile, told Doha News that he received a phone call from Qatar’s Government Communications Office after his release inviting him to a meeting the next day, but he chose not to attend and has not spoken to local officials since.