The recent arrest and detention of a BBC film crew and local fixer in Qatar gave me a bit of a jolt. As a freelance journalist in Qatar, I’d ‘fixed’ – acted as a local producer, setting up interviews and suggesting locations – for several international news organisations. Had I still been living in Qatar, that could have been me spending an uncomfortable and frightening night in a Qatari jail.
After the news broke, I was asked on Twitter whether I was surprised by the news. Of course I wasn’t. Qatar has form on this in very recent memory. Earlier this month, for example, German journalist Florian Bauer found himself staring at bars after a thwarted filming visit to Doha’s industrial area, home to many of the country’s labourers.
The Qatari authorities explained that they’d arrested Bauer because he had no filming permit. Meanwhile, they also accused BBC journalist Mark Lobel of “trespassing on private property and running afoul of Qatari laws.” Lobel said that the Public Prosecutor had told him he’d been violating the terms of the tourist visa he’d entered the country on – i.e, that he had no official permit to be carrying out journalism in Qatar. This accusation came despite the fact that he had been invited into the country by the government to report on new accommodation for labourers, and, as he pointed out, there was no other visa he could get.
There’s been much confusion about this issue,so I thought it might be useful to lay out the rules for the granting of such permits in Qatar.
All foreign media organisations wishing to film in Qatar (but not those coming to make radio or print-only reports) must apply for a permit. They can travel to Qatar on a tourist visa, the number of which they must submit if they need to apply for one in advance. The application for a filming permit must be done at least 15 days in advance (so no spontaneous visits are possible) and the online application form asks for the correspondent’s main topic, details and serial numbers of all camera equipment, passport numbers and a list of filming locations.
In my experience, this list needs to be as specific and inclusive as possible, as once the crew arrive it’s too late to add anything to it. This means that it’s impossible to grow a story naturally, to decide, say, that you want to head to a public beach to interview someone you’ve just met, or to film in the souq to add some colour. In reality, of course, crews will generally chance filming in an unauthorised area and usually get away with it, but if police or security guards are nearby (and believe me, they’re always nearby in Qatar) then they’ll find themselves in trouble.
Why, then, did Bauer and Lobel and their crews not have permits? For his part, Bauer claims that he tried to get one for more than five weeks, having been successful in obtaining one in the past. However, he received no response to his application from the Qatar News Agency (who handle applications) despite also contacting the German Embassy and Qatar’s Human Rights Committee to chase it up, so, as he told the Telegraph, he concluded “that they didn’t want to give us one.”
Meanwhile, Lobel had been invited into Qatar by the Ministry of Labour to visit new accommodation for labourers. As part of a fully endorsed media tour, he’d had to submit his passport number, but was allowed to enter the country on his UK passport, which allows for visa on arrival. It turns out that government officials tailed him from his entry into the country, so they were entirely aware that they had a journalist in their midst. It seems, however, that they didn’t require him to have a filming permit, as long as he was filming what they wanted him to film.
“The problems that the BBC reporter and his crew experienced could have been avoided if they had chosen to join the other journalists on the press tour,” Saif Al-Thani, the head of Government Communications Office, said in a statement.
Inevitably for a journalist belonging to a media organisation which prides itself on its independence, Lobel decided to chase the story himself, rather than being directed by the country’s expensive PR machine. It was during this trip to the industrial area to speak to labourers in accommodation that hadn’t been hand-picked for viewing that the car he was travelling in was pulled over by eight unmarked white cars. Thirty-six hours of detention ensued.
Several of my Qatari followers have remarked that Lobel would have been fine if he’d simply applied for a permit. Others have commented that he’d obviously trespassed on private property, so his arrest was to be expected.
Taking Bauer’s experience into account, one has to ask whether it is likely that Lobel would have been granted a permit to film had he been entirely honest about where he wanted to film. We will never know. Similarly, it’s incredibly difficult to get an accurate picture of what actually constitutes trespass in Qatar. I can find no explanation of it in the country’s legal portal Al Meezan. If, for example, a tenant invites you in, are you still trespassing if the landowner doesn’t know you’re there? If you follow the logic and think that that is the case, does that mean that everyone in rented accommodation in Qatar is not allowed to have visitors unless they’ve sought permission first?
It’s worth noting though that Qatar’s tight restrictions on filming are not limited to foreign media organisations. Journalism students at Qatar Foundation are required to seek permission for filming on their own campus, for example, and large complexes like Katara also require local journalists to obtain permission to film, as do large malls like Villaggio.
Some would argue that Qatar’s obsession with filming permits is simply a part of its culture, that such a devout Muslim country obviously values its privacy . Others, however, would suggest that it’s the exact opposite – that it’s a serious emphasis on its public image that motivates this need to control the image the wider world sees.
It’s interesting to note that the Qatar News Agency’s Foreign Media team, who are responsible for processing film permit applications, state that one of their key goals is “to defend and encourage freedom of expression.”
It will be intriguing to see how this goal plays out in the months and years to come as Qatar comes under even more intense scrutiny in the run up to 2022.