Category Archives: Doha News

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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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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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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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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A cautionary tale: Laid-off expats stuck in Qatar scramble to pay off debts

Kenneth Paton (left) and Tim Reeber

Kenneth Paton (left) and Tim Reeber

Earlier this week, I wrote an article for Doha News about the plight of two American paramedics who had been made redundant by Qatar’s Hamad Medical Corporation, but couldn’t leave the country as they had debts to pay. Even worse, they weren’t sure they’d be allowed to get another job to help pay them off. The possibility of jail – a normal punishment for unpaid debts in Qatar – beckoned.

If you’re an expat and you’re contemplating taking out a large loan in Qatar, read on… 

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Woman jailed for drug smuggling in Qatar blames system for plight

The National Crime Agency / Flickr

The National Crime Agency / Flickr

Recently, I co-wrote a story for Doha News about Martha Castellano, a Colombian woman who is in jail in Qatar for drug smuggling. Her story is complex and views on her predicament were mixed, but it certainly gives an interesting insight into the workings of the Qatari legal system.

Click here to read it.

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