In a rare case of a foreign journalist being detained by Qatar police, a German reporter has said he and several colleagues were recently arrested by security forces while filming in the Industrial Area and taken in custody for 14 hours.
Florian Bauer, who covers sports politics for German broadcasters WDR and ARD, was on his fourth trip to Qatar in late March when he was detained.
He spoke publicly about the incident for the first time on Monday, the same day he aired his footage on migrant worker conditions in Qatar, as well as his documentary The selling of football: Sepp Blatter and the power of FIFA.
After being released, Bauer said officials hinted he’d be unable to leave the country until their investigation was complete. He told Doha News that he departed Qatar five days later after the German embassy intervened in the case.
However, it took more than three weeks for his cellphone, laptop and external hard drive to be returned to him in Germany. His laptop had been damaged and the electronic devices had their memory wiped clean, he said.
“A lot of the authorities are aware of my stories in recent years. If they’ve seen them, they know that I’ve reported quite balanced,” he said. “I’m a little bit embarrassed at how this happened because it has never happened (to me) before … This detention was never expected.”
Bauer said he first visited Qatar as a journalist in 2010, ahead of the country winning hosting rights to the 2022 World Cup. He was also in the country last May when local officials proposed changes to Qatar’s controversial kafala sponsorship system.
As the one-year anniversary of that announcement approached, Bauer told Doha News that he began to plan a trip back to Qatar to see what’s changed.
Six weeks before he departed, Bauer said he started to request interviews directly with several senior government officials. He said he also applied for a filming permit, which he had been granted on his previous visit.
He said that despite repeated efforts, he received no response, but elected to travel to Qatar anyway and arrived on Friday, March 27. It is not clear how Bauer’s crew was able to clear customs with their film equipment, which usually requires a permit.
That day, Bauer and his colleagues traveled to the Industrial Area and spent some four to five hours filming, selecting a labor camp at random to interview expat workers.
Inside, he said he found a scene similar to what’s frequently been documented by human rights advocates: overcrowded living quarters with a dozen or more men sharing a room, cramped and dirty kitchens and migrant workers who said they were not being paid, or being paid less than they were promised.
Bauer said he did not feel he was being monitored. However, he added at one point a supervisor at the camp said he “needed to call someone.” In retrospect, Bauer speculated that he may have been calling the police.
Afterwards, the German television crew went to a nearby vacant lot around the corner to film a large group of men playing football. As they were shooting, a white sedan approached. Several men wearing white robes got out and quietly identified themselves as police and asked the journalists to put down their camera.
At this point, Bauer said he walked over to his cameraman and placed the recorded footage into his pocket.
Bauer, along with his cameraman, camera assistant and driver, were all taken to a detention center in the Industrial Area where he said he was able to call the German embassy and his employer before his phone was taken away.
Bauer said he was eventually taken to the public prosecutor’s office in West Bay where he was briefly jailed before being interviewed by a prosecutor. He said he explained his efforts to obtain a filming permit and interviews with government officials, and was ultimately released without being charged, 14 hours after being arrested.
However, he said officials implied to him that he would be unable to immediately leave Qatar because it would take weeks to remove the travel ban that had been instituted following his arrest.
During this time, he said he was visited by Qatar state media authorities who apologized for his ordeal and offered to pay for his hotel room and flight home, which Bauer said he declined.
The offer is similar to one made to another German filmmaker, Peter Giesel, who entered Qatar with a cameraman on a tourist visa in October 2013 and was subsequently arrested after speaking with workers near the Nepali embassy.
Giesel told the Guardian that they were released after spending 21 hours in jail and picked up by representatives of Qatar News Agency, who invited them to visit the country again.
Bauer said he was eventually told he could leave the country and departed the morning of April 2.
During his ordeal, Bauer said he was never told why he was being detained. However, the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy – which is overseeing the construction of Qatar’s World Cup stadiums – suggested in a statement that it was connected to Bauer lacking proper permission to shoot video:
“Any media outlet wishing to film in Qatar requires a film permit to do so, as is common in many countries. Any working journalist who has visited Qatar will be aware of this process and understand filming in specific locations without permission runs the risk of legal repercussions.”
Bauer said he doesn’t disagree with the SCDL’s statement, but added that he was never asked by police if he possessed a valid a filming permit. He said he voluntarily produced his shooting permit from last year, which started a short discussion on the subject.
Apart from Bauer and Giesel, reports of foreign journalists being arrested in Qatar are rare. Dozens of reporters have visited the country in recent years, many of whom have subsequently published critical stories on migrant labor issues.
Bauer noted that many of these other journalists were print reporters who attract less attention than a full camera crew and don’t require a filming permit.
Meanwhile, human right organizations have gone so far as to praise Qatar for allowing advocates to conduct investigations, meet government officials and present their findings to journalists in Qatar unimpeded, unlike other Gulf nations.
One recent exception was the arrest of two British-Nepali human rights advocates last August.
However, the unusual nature of their case – they said they were followed by plainclothes police officers for several days – prompted some to question if the men were targeted because of their employer, the Global Network for Rights and Development.
The organization appeared to have ties to the UAE, which was involved in a diplomatic dispute with Qatar at the time.
Nevertheless, one media advocacy organization said the 2013 case involving Giesel shows that Bauer’s recent arrest “is not an isolated case.”
In a statement released on Tuesday, Reporters Without Borders said it was “outraged” by the detention of Bauer and his colleagues, as well as the “arbitrary way the Qatari authorities behaved.”
“The government in Doha has to ensure that foreign journalists can investigate critical topics such as the situation of human rights in Qatar unhindered,” said Christian Mihr, the executive director of Reporters Without Borders’ German section.
As for Bauer, he said he wants the personal data that was erased from his electronic devices returned, as he suspects a copy was made by Qatar authorities.
He said he’d also like to return to Qatar, although he concedes he’s not sure if he is still able to enter the country.
“I’m not a reporter who (challenges) whether Qatar has a right to host the World Cup,” he said. “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 … I would have loved to have someone from the government in the story to get their perspective.”