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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“My name is Catherine. I am in desperate need.”

Catherine and Adam

Adam and Catherine at Doha’s Hamad International Airport

“My name is Catherine. I am in desperate need.”

The email arrived in my inbox just before bed on December the 9th, 2012. I’d had an ordinary, well-off Qatar expat sort of day; the drive to and from school twice, a morning of writing, a coffee with a friend in the afternoon, and a trip around the supermarket.

Catherine’s email cut through my privileged, cushioned, segregated life like a serrated knife through butter.

She told me that she had been following me for some time on Twitter, and had read an article I’d written for the Telegraph about the birth of my son in a Qatari hospital. It was this that had prompted her to pose me some very pressing questions.

“I just don’t know where to ask” she wrote. “I want to know if you have any idea about the laws here in Qatar regarding giving birth without a marriage certificate and single?“

It turned out that Catherine was 37 weeks pregnant, and single. Having sex outside of wedlock and giving birth unmarried are both illegal under Qatari law; the two crimes are usually referred to colloquially as “love cases.”

I knew a few single Western women who’d got pregnant unexpectedly in Qatar. They’d either flown home on the first available flight or got married post-haste.

Neither option was open to Catherine, however. Her boyfriend had left her, and she had given her passport to a private money lender as security for a high interest loan.

She had tried to persuade this lender to give it back to her so that she could fly home to the Philippines for a few months to give birth, but he had refused. She was late with repayments and he had lodged a court case against her for “bad cheques,” another criminal matter in Qatar.

“I have made some bad choices and took risks that were beyond what I could manage. I regret all that” she wrote. “I do not plan to run away from my obligations because If that was my plan I would have done it long way back. All I want is for my baby to be safe and not be taken away from me. I’m worried and I’m scared of that.”

I could see, even with the sparse details she had provided me with, that she was in dire straits.

I typed a response frantically, telling her that my (basic) knowledge of the Qatari legal system told me that she needed to get out of the country immediately, if she possibly could.

She and I both knew, however, that she was already beyond the safe limit for flying in pregnancy, and barring a miracle, all airlines would now refuse to carry her.

I also told her to pay her embassy a visit, and she promised she would do so the following day.

Reassurance

The next evening, I received an email update. She told me that her embassy had advised her that she could deliver her baby in Qatar, but that she would have difficulty obtaining a birth certificate for her child afterwards, as she was unmarried. They also told her that they could offer her accommodation if her employer sacked her after the birth.

Freestocks.org / Flickr

Freestocks.org / Flickr

She seemed optimistic after the meeting. “I hope and pray that all will be well” she said.

I was reassured by her email, and filed it at the back of my mind to follow up on after Christmas.
The festive season came and went. In January, I duly sent an email to Catherine asking how the birth had been, and how things were with her in general.

I received no response. At this stage, I wasn’t unduly worried. Her email about her visit to her embassy had been reassuring, and in my world – the world of the well off, professional European expat – these sort of things resolved themselves without too much drama.

It took some months before I had a sense of growing dread about Catherine’s case. By the summer, I realised she was never going to respond to my emails. I tried once more to get in touch, and receiving no response, I resolved to try to find out what had happened to her.

The problem was, I wasn’t even sure of her nationality. I’d originally assumed she was Singaporean, but the Singapore Embassy told me they’d never heard of her.

In jail

Next, I called the Philippines embassy. I was put through to several different people – and I gave a rambling explanation about Catherine to each – before I finally reached the vice-consul. I explained why I was calling, and in a calm voice – a voice which told me he said this stuff every day, to many people – he replied “ah yes, Catherine. Yes, she’s in prison here.”

The vice-consul confirmed that she had been arrested in hospital after the birth of her child, a son. He reassured me that mother and baby were together, and that he had visited her in jail several times. I asked if I could visit, but I was told that only family members or embassy officials were allowed to visit Qatar’s main jail.

my_southborough/Flickr

my_southborough/Flickr

After we’d established the facts, he invited me to the embassy to talk about the case, and it was as a result of this conversation that Doha News ran its first piece about ‘illegal birth’ in Qatar, an interview in August 2013 with another Filipina woman, who had given birth in secret, as she was also unmarried. We included a short quote from Catherine’s email in the story.

Catherine’s year-long jail sentence was due to end in December 2013, but the date passed, and I didn’t hear from her. I hoped that this meant that she had left Qatar and put everything behind her, her contact with me included.

In February 2014, however, I got another unexpected email.

This time, it was from a friend of Catherine’s, Maya. She told me that they’d been in jail together, and that Catherine had asked her to make contact with me so that she could ask me to visit her.

Despite having finished her sentence for ‘illegal birth’, Catherine was still incarcerated. The authorities had sent her and her son to the country’s deportation center for a while, before finally realising – after Catherine repeatedly urged them to check her files – that she had outstanding debt cases to answer in court.

A visit

I agreed to go to visit Catherine at the Capital Security building in central Doha, where prisoners awaiting trial are held.

Capital Security doesn’t look like a jail. It’s a large, modern complex with attractive architecture and mirrored windows, and it’s flanked by palm trees. There is no barbed wire – just a man in a booth who checks visitor IDs as they pass by.

Beyond here is a courtyard full of parked cars, and two flights of steps leading up to separate reception areas – one for men and one for women.

I was greeted by friendly female guards, who looked me up and down quizzically. Catherine’s friend was with me, and she took the lead. I was relieved about that, as I was nervous. I was visiting as a journalist rather than as a friend, and I didn’t know if the authorities would permit that if they knew.

My name and residence permit number were listed in the register, and I was asked to leave all of my belongings, including my notebook, with the guards. We were then asked to sit down briefly on the majlis style seating in the reception area before being ushered into a side room.

Here was a single row of plastic chairs, all facing segregated booths mounted on a counter, topped with inch-thick glass. There were grills beneath each window through which prisoners and visitors strained to communicate with each other.

Catherine came to sit down on the other side of the glass, cradling Adam. She was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and had her hair tied back neatly. Adam was more than a year old now, and walking. He was wearing a Hugo Boss t-shirt, a gift from the jail’s governor, and he was smiling broadly.

As we talked – a difficult task as the room filled up and visitors all began shouting into the grills, each struggling to be heard in the hubbub – Adam waved and made smeary hand trails across the glass.

The story I wrote after this meeting – with quotes from memory, hastily scribbled down after I’d left the jail – detailed her story thus far. Known in the piece by the alias “Mary,” I explained that she now faced a series of “cheque cases”, court cases due to unpaid debts. Some were for her loans, and others were for rent she had been unable to pay while in jail.

Somewhat incredibly, the authorities had not told her how many charges she was facing, so she had no idea how long her future jail term might be.

A friend was helping her gain access to her legal file so she could defend herself in court, but aside from that, she was on her own. Several scheduled court dates had already been cancelled, a symptom of Qatar’s incredibly congested legal system. She told me she hoped that the court might order her release so that she could work to pay off the debts, and so that Adam could grow up outside of jail.

As our meeting came to an end, Catherine signaled to security staff, asking them to bring her son to the other side of the divide.

They handed Adam to me beyond the security arch, through which we smiled and waved at his Mummy.

A bus in Doha. Jabiz Raisdana / Flickr

A bus in Doha. Jabiz Raisdana / Flickr

I took him through to the reception area, where we both looked out through the double doors at the car park outside and the road beyond.

“Dar,” he said, pointing to the cars parked outside. “Buuus” he said, delighted at the sight of a real bus.

I asked if I could take him for a walk outside, but the staff said it wasn’t allowed. Instead, Adam held his hand to the window, staring at the traffic passing by in the distance, eventually being persuaded to return to his mother inside.

Catherine asked me if I’d visit her again, and I agreed.

A return visit

I went back two months later. On the previous visit I’d asked what she needed, and she told me she was short of clothes, and that she loved to read, but had read most of the English language novels in the prison library.

I arrived loaded with shopping. A friend had bought her a selection of brand new children’s books and some novels, and I’d also bought toiletries for them both, as well as clothes and toddler snacks. The guards told me I would need to ask permission from the “Captain” – the policeman in charge of the jail – so I duly walked outside and entered through the men’s entrance on the other side.

The Captain’s office was on the left as we walked in. He was on the phone, but ushered us into his office and gesticulated at two chairs, separated by a table, upon which sat a box of tissues and some sweets.

Salem (MA) Public Library / Flickr

Salem (MA) Public Library / Flickr

When he ended his phone conversation, he asked us, in a pleasant but slightly exasperated way, why we were there. I garbled something about gifts for Catherine and her baby, and he nodded. He asked to see what was in my bag. I watched him take each item out and examine it. He opened the brand new box of children’s books and checked each book, presumably for drugs or some other contraband.

He initially refused the toddler snacks until I explained that they were for Adam. Then, with the same lack of ceremony with which we’d been received, he dispatched us back to the women’s section with his approval.

The female guards took the bag, and then we walked once again into the room with the plastic chairs and the glass screens. Catherine appeared, bearing the bag, and a huge smile. I watched as she removed each item from the bag, examining the books, the toiletries and the clothes in turn.

I’d given Adam some of my son’s old clothes, and she held them up to him to check the size. After a long chat about her legal situation – still no clearer than before – we prepared to say goodbye. This time, though, she had something for me – a little knitted pouch, along with a home-made envelope and note. Catherine had been learning to knit in jail.

Back to main jail

In July, I heard from her friend that she’d been sent back to the main jail to serve a sentence for debt. Neither she nor I knew what her real legal situation was. We kept in contact as Catherine tried to get her court documents translated.

Then that October, I had an email out of the blue from Catherine’s cousin, Kristina. She’d read the story Doha News had run and wanted to ask if I was writing about the same woman. She said Catherine had been calling her Mum every fortnight from Qatar, but that apart from that, the family had no idea how things were, or how to help her.

“We’re in a desperate situation, both Catherine and our family. Your article somehow gave us a glimpse of hope that we will be able to finally make progress with her case” she wrote.

She added that the family were trying to raise funds for a family member to fly to Qatar to try to help.

I confirmed that I was indeed writing about Catherine, and I told her I’d recently visited her. We exchanged further emails over the following months, trying to make sense of Catherine’s court appearances and sentences.

Time dragged on; my husband got a new job in the UK, and we left Qatar for good in April 2015. Despite my new surroundings, though, I hadn’t forgotten Catherine and Adam.

A surprise tweet

Then in late October 2015 – more than a year since I’d last seen Catherine, I received another unexpected message, this time via Twitter.

“Hello, it’s me :)” it said.

Catherine and Adam were out of jail in Doha. She’d been woken early that morning, unexpectedly, and told to pack their things.

The pair had initially been placed in the country’s deportation centre, but Catherine had complained that the overcrowded, unhealthy atmosphere was bad for Adam’s asthma, and the authorities had agreed. She was released into the care of distant family members in Doha, and aged nearly three, Adam now had his first taste of life beyond prison walls.

Adam in Doha after their release

Adam in Doha after their release

Catherine hoped she would be home in the Philippines by Christmas. Her father had died while she was in jail, and she hoped to be reunited with her mother as soon as possible.

It was not to be. It turned out – after a great amount of digging and multiple fruitless visits made by Catherine to various government offices – that she still had several civil debt cases hanging over her.

This meant a travel ban. She and Adam could not leave Qatar until they were resolved, and as she was supposed to have been deported, she couldn’t work either. She had no income and no way of paying back the loans.

I wrote another story for Doha News explaining her new predicament, and it was after this that I received an email from a lawyer who was interested in helping out. Kristen Johnson, then of law firm Squire Patton Boggs, successfully persuaded her colleagues to work pro bono on the case.

Travel bans lifted

Catherine and the SPB team met regularly and in April this year, she messaged me with great excitement. The Ministry of Interior had removed her travel bans – effectively forgiving the civil cases – and she and Adam were free to leave.

Catherine and Adam in the offices of law firm Squire Patton Boggs

Catherine and Adam in the offices of law firm Squire Patton Boggs

Thousands of miles away in London, I cracked open a bottle of wine and toasted their freedom.

Her family wasted no time in booking her flights, and on April 25th 2016, Catherine and Adam flew out of Doha’s Hamad International Airport bound for the Philippines.

When they walked out of arrivals in Manila, a whole crowd of Catherine’s family were there to meet them – cousins, aunts, her niece – and her mother, who she hadn’t seen in over four years.

Her return home is bitter-sweet, however. Her mother has kidney failure, and requires weekly dialysis.

“She looks okay though, but still it scares me,” Catherine told me after her return. “But I’m glad I am finally here with her and I want Adam to have memories with her and my family.”

Despite all this, she remains upbeat. She has plans to apply for an Australian work visa, and hopes to take Adam with her.

A life lesson

adam3

Adam, photographed after his return to the Philippines

What strikes me most about Catherine is her resilience and her lack of anger.

She told me that she initially felt anger towards Adam’s father for leaving them, but that she has forgiven him, and that she is now focusing on moving on. She says she has no anger towards the Qatari authorities, as she knew she was breaking the law, and she knew that there would be consequences.

Just after she was released, she told me that her ordeal had given her a new appreciation for life’s opportunities.

“Every single thing – every little thing that you can do today – do it, because you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” she said.

I learned many valuable lessons during my years as an expat, but this particular lesson from Catherine is one that will stay with me forever.

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After years in Qatar jail, Filipina mother and son finally head home

Catherine and Adam in the offices of law firm Squire Patton Boggs

Catherine and Adam in the offices of law firm Squire Patton Boggs

Earlier this week, a long and painful saga came to an end. Catherine and Adam – previously known by pseudonyms Mary and William in a series of  Doha News stories – were finally able to leave Qatar, more than three years after Catherine was first arrested in hospital for the crime of giving birth outside of wedlock.

I wrote a story for Doha News yesterday about how her departure came about; about the efforts of a legal team who, after reading about her plight in DN, fought for the lifting of her travel ban. The story has been shared more than four thousand times in 24 hours. Click here to read it.

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