In an effort to “counter” media criticism of Qatar’s preparations for the 2022 World Cup, the GCC is calling on journalists in the Gulf to publish stories that support the country’s right to host the international football tournament.
The directive was released following a meeting of GCC information ministers in Doha this week. In a joint statement carried by state news agency QNA late last night, they said:
“GCC information ministers renewed their call for the media to counter all those who seek to question the right of the State of Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup, stressing GCC states full solidarity with the State of Qatar and encouraged media in the GCC to continue countering these campaigns at home and abroad.”
While press freedom advocates say that attempts by governments to control the tone of media coverage should be condemned, others see it as a positive step that’s needed to balance the negative coverage the country has faced in recent years.
Abdulrahman Nasser Al-Obaidan, the acting director of the Doha Center for Media Freedom, told Doha News in a statement that the GCC was expected to support Qatar confront “the campaign and propaganda” put forward by foreign journalists.
“This is not a call for media to produce pro-Qatar content arbitrarily, but to counter reports which are quite clearly aimed at discrediting the right of a GCC nation to host such a prestigious sporting event,” he said.
Qatar has found itself under immense media scrutiny ever since it won the right to host the World Cup in 2010.
There’s been extensive international coverage of allegations – which Swiss authorities are currently investigating – that Qatar officials offered FIFA executives bribes in exchange for support for its bid. Qatar has repeatedly denied these charges.
Over the past four years, many foreign journalists have also traveled to Qatar and reported on the living and working conditions experienced by foreign construction workers in the country.
The ensuing stories have sometimes angered some local residents. Mohammed Al-Jufairi, who frequently comments on current affairs online, argued that international media reports often contain factual errors and misrepresent Qatar.
The most recent irritant for many residents was a controversial graphic published by the Washington Post that claimed to compare the number of construction workers killed while working on World Cup-related projects in Qatar to those in the run-up to major sporting events in other countries.
While some observers, including the Qatar government, argued that the graphic was misleading, it was nevertheless shared thousands of times on social media.
“I’m really mad about the false numbers that have been presented through the years,” Al-Jufairi told Doha News, adding that some journalists associate any construction site or labor camp in Qatar with the World Cup, even if it’s an unrelated project.
He said he welcomes efforts by the government to tell its side of the story:
— Mohammed Al-Jufairi (@Halawala) June 11, 2015
Al-Jufairi added that the number of deaths in Qatar are presented without comparisons to mortality rates in other countries.
He also noted that Russia has faced less scrutiny of its right to host the 2018 World Cup despite its invasion of Ukraine – a point that was also made recently by Qatar’s former prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, in an interview with Fox News.
“There is unequal coverage,” Al-Jufairi said, adding he believes much of the recent media coverage is an “attack” on Qatar motivated by a desire to see the country lose the World Cup.
However, many journalists deny reporting on Qatar with a bias, including German journalist Florian Bauer. He was arrested here earlier this year while filming in the Industrial Area.
“I’m not a reporter who (challenges) whether Qatar has a right to host the World Cup,” he told Doha News in May. “I’m a reporter who is trying to do balanced reporting. I never had any intention to write anything bad about the country. My journalistic approach is to simply write what is happening.”
Al-Jufairi added that the GCC’s plan to support Qatar via media coverage was “a good step forward” and would like to see Qatar go “on the offensive.”
While Al-Jufairi said he doesn’t believe the government should tell journalists what to write, it could provide reporters with “truthful” information to assist them in “providing the real coverage.”
There are signs that the government is moving in this direction. A recently formed Government Communications Office has started to respond to negative media coverage, such as the Washington Post graphic.
Earlier this year, authorities also organized a tour for foreign correspondents of model labor camps in Qatar that aren’t typically featured in news reports.
While the tour led to some stories about the country’s progress, it was mocked in some quarters and quickly overshadowed by the arrest of a BBC journalist who was invited by Qatar authorities to report on the camps.
Questions of independence
While governments around the world use various public relations strategies, hearing ministers “encourage” journalists to cover stories in a certain way makes some media advocates uncomfortable.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Reporters Without Borders told Doha News that the organization “strictly condemns any attempt to control the media discourse regarding (the World Cup) and the attitude of governments who want to dictate a media strategy aimed at supporting its views.
“Media’s independence and the freedom to report should be respected by authorities who also should allow (criticism) to be made in the run-up to this major event … that is of importance to the international community.”
Meanwhile, it remains unclear how the GCC-wide directive will affect journalism in Qatar. Here, newspapers typically shy away from issues that are critical of the country’s leadership and World Cup.
In 2013, Darwish S. Ahmed – the editor-in-chief of the Gulf Times – was quoted as saying that the only people who say negative things about Qatar are those who won’t understand the country.
“We get words from responsible people,” he said. “They are responsible to state facts. We must not mislead our reader. Our aim is always to provide people with news and the information that shows Qatar is healthy.”
The joint GCC communique does not spell out how it plans to encourage journalists in the Gulf to write pro-Qatar stories beyond developing a “strategic vision” for the media showing that the country has a right to host the World Cup.
Notably, the only evidence that’s surfaced of a coordinated anti-Qatar campaign implicates a fellow GCC state.
Last fall, The Intercept reported that the UAE spent millions of dollars hiring lobbyists in Washington to plant negative stories about Qatar with US journalists.