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Thursday, February 25, 2021

Report: Qatari law prevents journalists from doing their jobs

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Two local institutions have published back-to-back reports that offer detailed insight into Qatar’s media landscape. In our first post, we covered Northwestern University in Qatar’s regional survey, which found the Internet to be the most important source of news in this country. This second report indicates some of the reasons why people here don’t look for news from the heavily-regulated traditional media.

The Doha Centre for Media Freedom has published a damning report underscoring the lack of freedom journalists have in the Gulf, including in Qatar, despite claims to the contrary by the government.

Officially released on Wednesday, “Media laws and regulations of the GCC countries” focuses on the legal framework and context that journalists work within here and across the Gulf.

Unsurprisingly, the centre’s report stands in line with the findings of Reporters Without Borders, which ranks Qatar 110th globally for press freedom, and Freedom House, which classifies the country as “not free.”

According to Qatar’s media law, which has not been formally updated since 1979, the government has the right to use “prior restraint,” meaning it can order news outlets not to cover certain subjects. The cabinet also has the authority to shut down newspapers and cancel their licenses, making it almost impossible to cover government affairs critically.

According to the report:

“The Emir officially outlawed prior restraint in a 1995 decree; however, the official media law has never been updated—a disparity that could lead to confusion. Also, the self-censorship widely practiced by Qatari news editors largely creates a system of de facto prior restraint.”

A myriad of other restrictions prevent journalists from offering critical coverage and necessitate self-censorship, including the threat of a fine or jail time for criticizing the Emir, or even attributing something to him without prior approval from his office.

Additionally, the media law protects business interests with a clause that bans causing “confusion with the economic situation in the country.” And explaining why you won’t find newspapers naming and shaming restaurants and other businesses here is the law that prohibits undermining “the reputation of a person” or his “commercial name.”

Publications are also required to be licensed, creating another means of control of the press.

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Al Jazeera is largely given leeway to operate outside of the country’s restrictive media framework, although the network doesn’t consider coverage of domestic affairs as central to its mandate.

Here’s why DCMF says it commissioned the report:

At the Doha Centre, we measure a government’s compliance with press free­dom principles by the legal environment it creates and enforces to support me­dia freedom. The media landscape of a country cannot be understood without a thorough analysis of the legal mechanisms under which journalists work.

Despite the restrictive laws, DCMF’s study found that Qatar “is the only GCC nation that has issued a proposal to change their media laws to create more freedoms for journalists.”

In the proposed new media law, journalists would be protected from prison sentences for doing their job, although fines are increased to unreasonable levels in the new legislation, keeping jail time on the table for those unable to pay.

The new law would also seek to regulate electronic media, which has so far been unrestricted. That freedom in digital media likely has something to do with recent findings that people in Qatar rely to the internet as their main source of news.

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Freedom of the press is in theory guaranteed under Qatar’s constitution, but it is also limited by it, based on clauses that protect state security and national unity.

The following are edited excerpts of the centre’s findings.

Restrictions on journalists in Qatar’s Penal Code:

Chapter Four of the penal code addresses “calumny (slander), defamation and secret disclosure.” These crimes are all punishable by imprisonment and fines.

  • Article 326 promises up to two years imprisonment or QR20,000 ($5,400) for “defaming someone in public through accusing them of doing a mishap necessitating a legal punishment or inflicting their dignity or honor or exposing them to people’s disdain and malice.”
  • Article 327 raises the penalty to three years in prison for defaming a “public employee due to the job or the occupation, or if the calumny inflicts the family’s reputation.”

Truth stands as a defense against defamation.

Invasion of privacy is also a criminal offense:

  • Article 331 of the penal code directs up to a one-year prison sentence and fine of QR5,000 ($1,350) for “spreading news, photos or comments related to secrets of private life, or families, or individuals even if they were true.”

Article 256 of the penal code criminalizes blasphemy.

  • The law provides up to seven years in prison for “insulting the Supreme Being in letter and spirit, in writing, drawing, gesturing or in any other way.” The article also criminalizes “offending, misinterpreting or violating the Holy Koran” and bans “cursing any of the divine religions.”

Restrictions on journalists in Qatar’s Media Law:

  • Articles 24 and 25 give authority to the government’s Cabinet and Minister of Information (no longer functioning) to shut down a newspaper or cancel its license.
  • Article 46 of the media law makes it a crime to criticize the Emir of Qatar or to attribute any statement to him without the express permission of his office. Violators face up to six months in prison or a fine of QR3,000 ($800).
  • According to Article 47, journalists may not publish material that causes “any damage to the supreme interests of the country.” The article also bans any statement that may cause “confusion with the economic situation in the country.”
  • Article 47 bans anything that would imply “offense to the public morals.”
  • Article 47 also covers the issue of libel as it relates to the news media. The law prohibits undermining “the reputation of a person” or his “commercial name.”
  • It also bans defamation for government officials but makes an exception to allow for journalistic error.
  • The law notably doesn’t make an exception for all public figures, such as members of the ruling family or ministers in government.
  • Article 47 allows for prior restraint. It reads that a news outlet is prohibited from publishing “any news or article or document that the Minister of Information may have notified the editor or the proprietor of the press publication not to be published.”

Restrictions journalists would face under Qatar’s Draft Media Law:

  • The new law allows defamation to remain a criminal offense, although a court must now issue approval before a police officer may arrest a journalist.
  • While imprisonment has been removed as a penalty for journalists, fines have been raised to exorbitant amounts. The penalty for not paying a debt in Qatar is jail, so the prospect of prison would still loom for a practicing journalist.
  • The draft law forbids journalists from reporting critically on “friendly nations.”
  • Another provision prohibits criticism of the “royal family,” a broad description that could include thousands of relatives of the emir.
  • The draft media law also decrees that journalists may not damage “higher interests” of the country.

You can read through the full report here:

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Credit: Top photo by UNAMID, second photo by Paul Keller, third photo by Roger H. Goun.

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