After two years of climbing in the ranks of an international press freedom index, Qatar’s standing has fallen slightly in 2014, amid fears that the country’s new cybercrime law would add new restrictions to online expression.
The French media advocacy organization Reporters Without Borders said Qatar ranked 113th out of 180 countries in its most recent study. That’s slightly worse than last year, when Qatar ranked 110th out of 179 countries.
Among its Gulf neighbors, Qatar ranked behind only Kuwait (91st) and finished ahead of the UAE (118th), Oman (134th), Bahrain (163rd) and Saudi Arabia (164th).
“It’s not a strong worsening, but the situation is concerning,” Soazig Dollet, who leads Reporters Without Borders’ Middle East and North Africa desk, told Doha News.
“There are no clear signs of positive will from the authorities to (allow) more freedom of expression in the country.”
Proposed legislation that would make it a crime to spread “false news” and would punish anyone who publishes information that infringes on Qatar’s “social principles or values” is one factor weighing on Qatar’s rankings, Dollet said.
Those provisions of the country’s draft cybercrime law – which is primarily focused on preventing online fraud and attacks on computer networks – drew criticism from the Doha Centre for Media Freedom and the Committee to Protect Journalists when they were first released last May.
That law received both Cabinet and Advisory Council approval this month, although it is not clear if the legislation still contains sections that tighten restrictions on what material can be published online.
Doha News has not been able to obtain a copy of the draft law or pose questions about its contents to the government. Spokespeople from both ictQatar and the Ministry of Interior said the legislation was not within their jurisdiction.
Earlier this month, a recap of a cabinet meeting by state news agency QNA made no mention of those controversial sections, raising the possibility that they’ve been removed.
However, a report in this week’s Peninsula said that the law would punish anyone who hosted a website that is “intended to subvert the law of the land or for spreading false news that may harm the country’s safety and security.”
If Qatar were to move forward with the cybercrime law and its provisions on news, the country’s journalism organizations may be motivated to further self-censor themselves, argues Matt J. Duffy, an expert on journalism and media laws in the Middle East and an assistant professor at Kennesaw State University in the US.
Other countries with laws that attempt to legislate truthfulness in reporting have seen a negative impact on free expression, he added in an interview with Doha News.
“There is no country with a good press freedom ranking that has a false news law on the books. The only result is that it has is impeding good journalism.”
Duffy argued that all journalists attempt to be accurate in their accounts, but that the industry norm of attributing information to sources – which may or may not be truthful in their accounts – makes such a demand impossible, leading to self-censorship.
Similarly, laws prohibiting reporting on issues that may disrupt the social order are overly broad and are used by governments to limit criticism and dissent, said Duffy, who formerly worked as a journalism and media ethics professor in the UAE before being sacked suddenly in 2012.
For example, in a recent report, Duffy noted that the Emirates sentenced a social media activist to 10 months in prison for tweeting about a trial and criticizing some of the proceedings under a law prohibiting the spread of “any incorrect, inaccurate, or misleading information which may damage the interests of the state or injures its reputation, prestige, or stature.”
Another piece of controversial legislation that gained traction in Qatar – but has not actually been passed – is a new media law, to update the one established in 1979.
Like many media observers, Duffy said he is still waiting for Qatar to introduce this law. It has been in the works for several years, but no update on its development has surfaced in more than a year.
Though the law prohibits the jailing of journalists, it does allow for imposing steep penalties that editors have said reporters would be unable to pay, landing them in jail anyway.
Journalists here have also expressed concern over certain clauses in the draft version of the bill – specifically vague provisions that would bar critical reporting on Arab and friendly countries, and would penalize media organizations for published for running anything that could be deemed offensive to Qatar’s ruling family or damaging to national interests.
Duffy concedes that there are “major problems” with the legislation, but said Qatar would still be better off with this media law.
“It would strengthen journalism,” he said. “There are provisions in the law that offer more protection to journalists … (as well as) instructions to government agencies to be more transparent.”
One challenge to advancing media rights in Qatar is the lower value that Gulf society places on journalism relative to other parts of the world, including non-Western nations, Duffy argued.
“(In some parts of the world), they value journalists as watchdogs to keep an eye on the powerful, whether it businessmen or government (officials),” he said. “In the Arab world, and particularly in the GCC, they don’t see journalism embraced that way.”