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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.