On the demise of Doha News and free speech in Qatar

 

This week, Qatar’s Emir told CBS that his country “wanted freedom of speech for the people of the region.”

Sheikh Tamim made the statement in defiance of demands from neighbouring nations that he should close the Qatar-funded news outlet Al Jazeera.

But while Qatar is busy patting itself on the back for bringing independent, Arab-led global news to the world, it is also busy suppressing similar voices at home.

Losing Doha News

Until very recently, I was Editor-at-Large of Doha News, Qatar’s most popular news website.

Founded in 2009 by two American journalists, Omar Chatriwala and Shabina Khatri, it stood up for truth, honesty and debate against a backdrop of the press release journalism published by local newspapers.

Doha News continued to stand for these principles even after Qatar’s government decided to block access to the site without warning last December.

And even then, despite having to shed most of its staff and move operations overseas, DN continued to publish well-researched, well-sourced, honest stories about Qatar.

And although DN no longer operated in Qatar and was therefore not beholden to local regulations, Qatar’s government persisted with its censorship of the site.

Sadly, the loss of traffic hurt advertising sales, and eventually Doha News’ founders could no longer continue to support it financially.

Sinking ship

In the hope of keeping the site alive instead of just shutting it down, it was sold last month to Star Reputation Consulting Ltd. The online media company from India said its goal is to promote “free and unbiased journalism.”

Stokpic.com

Initially, the plan was to retain the editorial team during a transitional period.

However, we decided to walk away after the company expressed a desire to enforce its own – undisclosed – editorial values on existing  staff.

Since the sale, Doha News has published only a handful of articles, and sent out only a few tweets. The new owners do not appear to have hired new journalists, and for now at least, the future of the site seems bleak.

This is incredibly depressing, not only for the owners and staff of Doha News, who have worked tirelessly and at times at great personal risk for the cause of free media in Qatar, but also for Qatar’s residents.

They now have only a steady diet of propaganda, advertising and rumour with which to discern what is actually going on in the country they live in.

Required reading

Before the sale, Doha News was an integral part of hundreds of thousands of people’s daily lives. The founders’ brave journalistic principles made the site required reading for anyone interested in Qatar, and its social media following to date – 488k on Twitter and 386k on Facebook – meant that a sizeable percentage of the country’s 2.6m population was reading its output every day.

As Doha News grew, so did its team and its ambition.

Doha News on Twitter, November 2017

It began as a Twitter feed that curated Qatar-related content, and then grew into a blog that included original reporting. The site gained a much larger following in 2012 during a fire at Villaggio mall that killed 19 people, most of them children.

As questions swirled about the blaze, Qatar’s television and radio stations remained silent. But the Doha News team live-blogged the disaster, sharing developments in real time.

Later, it was the only news outlet in Qatar to report on the Villaggio manslaughter trial, and the only one, incredibly, that actually named the high-ranking officials – one of whom was Qatar’s Ambassador to Belgium – who were convicted.

Controversial opinion pieces

Other ground-breaking stories of note include this report about the arrest of a Nepalese teacher for allegedly insulting Islam; these photos of a the reality of life inside a labor camp; this story of a woman jailed for giving birth to a baby outside wedlock; this story about the plight of homeless Iranians working in Qatar’s markets; this interview with a Filipina nanny about what it’s like to look after someone else’s children when you’ve had to leave yours overseas; and this coverage of a riot started by laborers on a building site.

The site also made a name for itself featuring positive, lesser-reported stories, like this tale about the family who have a tap outside their house offering free laban to all comers; this piece about a poetic restaurant worker; and this story about a local beekeeper.

Alongside its reporting, the site also began publishing opinion pieces written by residents from all sections of Qatari society.

In some cases, these brought out into the open views that had never before been aired in the media in Qatar. Among them was this piece written by a Qatari who wanted to be allowed to marry a foreigner, and this piece by a gay Qatari man.

It was the latter op-ed that many believe to have been the catalyst for the website’s demise. Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, and an open acknowledgement that some of its nationals may in fact be gay was too much for the conservative elements of its society.

The blocking of Doha News came as a surprise to us because – until then – we had genuinely had no governmental interference in our journalism.

Run-ins with the law

We took the government’s support of Al Jazeera to mean that officials at least quietly believed in our mission. Indeed, some government agencies shared DN stories on social media, and we were invited to government press conferences and events. Government officials even told us privately that they were fans.

However, the country’s cybercrime law, enacted in 2014, was used repeatedly to try to silence Doha News, threatening the freedom of its staff.

The legislation’s controversial privacy provisions make it illegal to publish news related to the personal or family life of individuals – even if the information is true.

The cybercrime law also contains a vaguely worded clause that criminalizes any content found to violate the country’s “social values” or “general order.”

my_southborough/Flickr

These two sections are essentially a blank check to write a prison sentence on.

In July last year, Doha News’ former Assistant Editor Peter Kovessy was arrested and detained overnight for naming a convicted (expat) paedophile in a story. He was not charged, but forced to sign a document saying he would not write about the man in question again.

Months earlier, Peter was brought in for questioning after looking into a story about a moving company which had recently gone out of business, leaving many residents without their belongings.

Fearful of negative coverage, the owner had complained to the police and was able to force Doha News not to publish the story, despite the fact that it was entirely true.

A year before that, Shabina Khatri and I were called by the Criminal Investigations Department and brought in for questioning over a story.

I was pregnant at the time, and terrified I would be detained and that there would be no one to pick up my four-year-old son from school.

It turned out that the police simply wanted to know who had given us the information in a story about an alleged gang rape. The source, an embassy staffer, was clearly noted in the story, and eventually they let us go.

Unflinching

It would have been far easier to have altered our editorial line to avoid incidences like these; far easier to do what all other media outlets do in Qatar, and toe the line. But we didn’t. And that’s why Doha News was so important.

Untethered to influential owners, not pandering to fragile egos and unpersuaded by the ever-present media freebies – Peter once returned a gifted iPad to Qatar Rail and they asked him if it was broken – DN simply reported the truth.

That, then, is why I am treating Sheikh Tamim’s enthusiastic defense of free speech with immense skepticism.

Doha News founder Shabina Khatri. Photo: Lance Cenar

It is not enough to insist that journalists in your employ should be allowed to report freely abroad (remember #journalismisnotcrime?)

No, if you are to avoid hypocrisy, you must also allow journalists in your own country to question, to probe and to analyze without fear.

A while ago, I was at a media function, and I got talking to a journalist who worked at one of Qatar’s major newspapers.

A talented reporter, he approached me earnestly with a list of stories he had wanted to investigate, but had been told by his paper’s editors that he could not. He desperately wanted to publish the truth as he saw it, but he was denied that chance.

In refusing to allow residents of Qatar to read Doha News, Qatar will now only have this sort of media: the media it deserves.

Doha News’ critics, small in number but very vocal, will get what they have wanted all along. A benign, malleable media, publishing advertorial rather than informative and useful news.

Lighting a torch

For our loyal Doha News readers who still want to know what’s going on around town, I have this advice: Maintain a healthy skepticism about all you read.

Join Twitter and save a #Qatar search; follow a wide range of publications and opinion-formers. If you read news from the broadest range of sources, the truth will be out there, somewhere in between.

And if, by any chance, there are Qatari men and women reading this who believe strongly in free media, I have a plea especially for you.

Photo: Lance Cenar

Take this opportunity to fill the void left by the old Doha News team. Start your own news website based on sound journalistic principles. Fund it well; give its editors free reign. Defend it against its inevitable detractors.

Qatar is a fascinating country going through a period of enormous change. It deserves to be studied and understood. Don’t let this period of time in Qatar pass you by in soft focus.

Good journalism casts light in the darkness; sharpens the image and brings much-needed clarity.

Grasp this opportunity and run with it.

Doha News has lit a torch – now it’s up to you to start a fire.

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World News Monthly guest

This week, I appeared as a guest on Premier Christian Radio’s world news panel discussion show. We covered a wide range of topics, from the Venezuelan crisis, to Trump, North Korea and the GCC Crisis. You can listen to it again here:

https://www.premierchristianradio.com/…/World-Monthly-Podca…

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Qatar, your media is letting you down

A recent headline in The Peninsula

It is a truly disheartening experience to spend days researching and writing a news story which you know will be branded “fake,” simply because some people don’t like what is says.

Thanks to Donald Trump, however, that’s now a depressing reality for many journalists around the world, and particularly so for the Doha News team at the moment.

Doha News is Qatar’s only independent source of national journalism, and as such it has always stuck out amid a crowd of sycophantic newspapers and online outlets.

Reading a Qatari daily paper has always been like taking a dose of happy pills.

Effusive press releases printed verbatim and an endless parade of photos of high-ranking officials signing deals and staring meaningfully at plans, new buildings and new roads reassure you that all is in hand. Oh, and by the way – a revolutionary new model of vacuum cleaner is out now in all good department stores for a very reasonable price – so that’s nice.

Propaganda war

Now, however, a maze of damaging propaganda is being sewn on all sides in the current GCC crisis.

The daily newspapers of Qatar’s neighbours are currently full of extraordinary stories, many of which are either tenuously extrapolated half-truths or utter, baldfaced lies.

It is not surprising then that Qatar’s papers are doing their bit to push the balance back in the other direction.

Every day since the crisis began, they have all carried stories which I believe fall into the propaganda category. The majority lack statistics or facts, and simply seek to paint a reassuring picture.

Like this story, which is a complete misunderstanding (or misrepresentation) of the way advertising works. London is clearly not “showing solidarity” – a London ad agency simply took a booking, and payment, for some ads.

Then there was this denial that the blockade had affected the airport in any way (Qatar Airways has still not responded to my request for comparable data for the Eid holiday period last year) and this story about how the construction industry in Qatar has apparently also been entirely unaffected by the blockade. It contains no facts, but is not presented as opinion.

While some would argue that the newspapers’ motives are benign and simply a way of reassuring the public and maintaining public morale, I respectfully disagree.

‘Fake news’

I have noticed that many Doha News readers are starting to dismiss factual stories as fiction, simply because they don’t fit the rosy view they have read elsewhere. And this is dangerous.

A major new study published by the Columbia Journalism Review recently analysed a worrying trend in the USA, where right-wing Americans abandoned traditional news sources during the recent Presidential election in favour of right-wing publications which only reinforced their own viewpoint.

White House / Facebook

The researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) concluded that this had skewed coverage of the election campaigns in all media in the USA, putting an emphasis on some issues – immigration and Hillary Clinton’s emails – rather than on other manifesto promises.

Essentially, fake news stories produced by the right-wing press seeped into the public consciousness and potentially affected the result of the election. It also meant that well-researched, factual stories which could have changed minds were often dismissed as fake.

I suggest that the proliferation of propaganda in Qatar’s newspapers, and the papers’ enduring reluctance to cover any news which could be vaguely regarded as “negative,” is causing a similar shift in Qatar.

Exchange issues story

Here’s an example. Late last month, I wrote a story for Doha News about the fact that a number of foreign exchange firms were refusing to exchange Qatari Riyals outside of Qatar.

Doha News had been contacted by several readers who’d experienced trouble changing their riyals on their travels in places where it had previously been a straightforward thing to do.

Omar Chatriwala / Doha News

Tweets from the @dohanews Twitter account asking if this was a widespread issue prompted confirmation of similar problems from many more readers in several different countries.

The team then called a number of banks and exchange firms in both the UK and the USA, who confirmed that they had indeed ceased to buy Riyals, as a direct result of the GCC Crisis. Finally, I spoke to a currency expert who gave us his analysis of the situation.

The resulting story, which took a week to write and research – Foreign exchanges in many countries are refusing Qatari riyals – laid out the facts Doha News had gathered, and prompted Reuters to make their own enquiries.

And yet, here are just some of the comments underneath the story on the Doha News Facebook page:

“Don’t believe Doha News, they are paid puppets of the UAE.”
“No wonder that Doha News got a ban in Qatar…..You are increasing panic in people.”
“This is not unusual. And does not indicate something is wrong.”

I found myself answering a string of accusatory comments on all our platforms from people who were absolutely determined that our story was incorrect.

That meant asserting that Doha News was not paid by any government; that it had no interest in generating panic, and was simply interested in publishing the truth; and that the situation was incredibly unusual, and did indicate something was awry.

QNA denial

It will not surprise you to read that Qatar’s local papers were not reporting the same story.

They were initially silent on the subject. Then, two days later, the Qatar state news agency (QNA) released a statement, shared in all local papers, stating that “reports circulating across different media about the trading and exchange rate of the Qatari riyal were baseless.”

I absolutely, categorically, knew that to be untrue. But readers of Qatar’s dailies did not.

It’s no surprise that many readers are struggling to see the wood for the trees.

A dangerous precedent

I lived in Qatar for six years and I still find it fascinating to write about. I have always said that that’s because it has so many untold stories; and sadly, that remains true.

No other national news outlets in Qatar will investigate stories about suffering or injustice, and until Doha News is unblocked in Qatar, it’s tricky for us to do so, too.

What worries me now is that Qatar’s residents will eventually become so desensitised to propaganda that they will accept it without question.

That means that policy changes that affect the lives of many residents may go unquestioned, and injustices may be able to continue without ever being noticed.

my_southborough/Flickr

I think back to the many important stories Doha News has covered over the years – the Villaggio trial, the imprisonment of pregnant unmarried women, the non-payment of salaries at certain organisations – and realise that today, Doha News would probably be told that these stories were fake. And that worries me tremendously.

I believe strongly in the importance of a free media in the development of a nation. The ability to question our leaders and query policies makes, in my opinion, for a stronger community and state.

Realising that not everything in your country is perfect is the first step to fixing the things that aren’t.

And I, for one, don’t think that’s fake news.

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Family of baby burned in Qatar fire take compensation fight to court

Family of baby burned in Qatar fire take compensation fight to court

I’ve been following the Elizabeth Soffe case for three years. This is an update: her parents have taken their former landlord, Al Asmakh, to Qatar’s civil court.

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Doha News scales back output after blocking in Qatar

Stokpic.com

Stokpic.com

At the end of November, the authorities in Qatar blocked access to dohanews.co inside the country.

In the interest of protecting our team, DN has reduced the number of articles it publishes until it can resolve the problem and get the site unblocked.

If you are in Qatar and experiencing difficulties reading the site, here are some ways you can still read us.

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Qatar Airways flight from DC diverts to Portugal after severe turbulence

Peter Russell / Flickr

Peter Russell / Flickr

On December 4th, a Qatar Airways flight flying from Washington DC to Doha had to divert to The Azores after serious turbulence. I wrote a story for Doha News about the incident, which included compelling images and tweets from some of the passengers, who told me that they felt “abandoned” by the airline when they were not initially given visas to exit the airport.

You can read the story here.

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Appearance on Al Jazeera’s The Stream

Appearance on Al Jazeera's The Stream

Appearance on Al Jazeera’s The Stream

On November 16th, I appeared on Al Jazeera’s The Stream, a discussion programme which encourages audiences to take part via social media. This particular programme was focused on efforts currently being made by the Qatari government to improve breastfeeding rates.

I was interviewed because I have written numerous articles on maternity care in Qatar, and also because I have personal experience of very poor support for breastfeeding in the country.

You can watch the show here.

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My sister and I have never spoken

Clare has Rett Syndrome, a rare neurological disorder affecting mostly girls.

Clare has Rett Syndrome, a rare neurological disorder affecting mostly girls.

My sister and I have never spoken.

That’s not because we had a huge falling out as toddlers, or because I find her objectionable.

Clare never learned to speak. Well, she did utter a few words as a baby, I’m told, but lost the ability to form them almost as soon as they’d arrived.

I was a toddler then, so I’m unable to recall the sound of her voice. I often wonder what she’d sound like, and what she’d say if she could. Would she have chastised my teenage dress sense or told me my first boyfriend was a loser? Probably (she’d have been right on both counts.)

Clare has Rett Syndrome. It’s a genetic, non-hereditary disorder which mostly affects girls. As well as not speaking, she can’t walk, feed herself, and has no use of her hands.

Although she’s 36, we believe that her awareness is toddler-like.  She is a very happy soul, laughing and smiling a great deal. She adores music and loves tasty food. Sad music makes her cry. She also thinks that Dire Straits are the height of musical genius, but let’s forgive her that.

I’m writing this because October is not only Breast Cancer awareness month – it’s Rett Syndrome awareness month too.

My Mum founded Rett Syndrome UK when we were children. It’s a charity which supports the families of those with Rett Syndrome, and funds research into the disorder.

If you or anyone you know has a child who seems to be losing skills they’ve learned, who has unusual hand movements and is lagging behind in physical development, it’s worth taking a look here and asking your doctor about Rett Syndrome.

 

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Expat sues Qatar employer after she was fired for being pregnant

Frank de Kleine/Flickr

Frank de Kleine/Flickr

I recently wrote about the case of Srijana Shrestha, a 32-year-old expat who lost her job in Qatar after telling her boss that she was pregnant. She is currently taking her former boss to court for unfair dismissal.

Srijana contacted numerous Qatar newspapers about her situation, but none of them responded. This is why outlets like Doha News are vital in Qatar – we are the only journalists who will pursue these kind of stories, and without us, these cases go unreported.

You can read the article here.

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A three-part series on giving birth in Qatar

Megan Sparks/Flickr

Megan Sparks/Flickr

I recently wrote three stories for Doha News about the state of maternity services in Qatar. They were the result of a lengthy process of research, multiple interviews and communication with hospitals (where it was possible – Al Ahli hospital refused to reply) to get their responses and points of view.

The first piece was about systemic issues which midwives and doulas working in the country allege make giving birth in Qatar at times unpleasant, overly-medicalised and in the case of a restriction on opiates, very painful.

The second piece carried on in this vein, examining the aftercare new mothers do (and do not) receive from medical facilities in Qatar; and in the third piece, I spoke to three women who had experienced miscarriage and stillbirth in the country. It was a depressing story to write, and all three women called for change in hospital policies.

The comments underneath each story are very interesting. There’s a real mix – some women were clearly delighted with the care they received, saying that it was far better than in their home countries, while others argued strongly that the opposite was true.

Have you given birth in Qatar? What was your experience like?

 

 

 

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