Despite the rise in this year’s index, advocates argue Qatar still has a long way to go in improving press freedom, especially after reports of some journalists being detained and deported.
Qatar has gone up nine places in this year’s Reporters Without Borders (RSF) global press freedom index. The jump to 119 out of 180, demonstrates that restrictions are gradually lifting and slowly improving in the Gulf state but there is still room for improvement.
This is the 20th edition of the organisation’s annual World Press Freedom Index and examines the condition of journalism in 180 nations and territories.
The country’s renown network, Al Jazeera, has changed the region’s media landscape and has been dubbed as beacon of free press in the Middle East. However, the company still comes under scrutiny and criticism for under reporting certain issues in Qatar.
Some local journalists and residents in Qatar, frequently engage in self-censorship, particularly online, to avoid any legal implications.
Coverage of migrant workers issues
With the FIFA World Cup months away, there has been increasing coverage of migrant rights issues in the country. Al Jazeera English, has produced several reports on the issue, particlarly on its website. However, RSF has criticised the parent company’s Arabic-language branch for inadequate coverage on the matter.
Doha News has also reported on the topic and faced no legal repercussions.
Over the past few years, Qatar has seen a number of labour reforms. In 2021, they introduced the region’s first ever non-discriminatory minimum wage law.
Qatar also approved two key laws in August 2020 to eliminate barriers on migrant workers leaving the country and changing jobs without permission from their employers.
The government removed limitations on migrant workers changing jobs without permission from their employers and established a monthly minimum wage of 1,000 QAR, including basic living allowances for select workers.
Under it, employers are now obliged to pay their workers allowances of 300 QAR for food, 500 QAR for housing, and a minimum monthly basic wage of 1,000 QAR.
Employers who fail to comply with the minimum wage law will face a one-year jail sentence and a 10,000 QAR fine.
The Ministry of Labour also launched a new platform for complaints in May 2021 to enable employees to submit public violations of the labour law.
The new laws have the potential to strike at the core of the Kafala system, which continues to link migrant workers to their employers, if effectively implemented. However, there are numerous cases of employers not abiding by the reforms.
Employees told Amnesty International that changing employment still comes with major obstacles and opposition from dissatisfied bosses.
More than 2,000 labour complaints were filed with the Ministry of Labour against firms and institutions across the country in December alone.
Malcolm Bidali’s arrest
One of the core reasons behind Qatar’s ranking is the arrest of Malcolm Bidali, a campaigner for migrant rights in Qatar, who was taken from his house in May 2021 and detained by Qatari officials in an unidentified location.
Bidali wrote for Migrantrights.org (MR) under the pen name Noah to bring attention to the limits and reality experienced by migrant workers in Qatar.
Bidali was then prosecuted by Qatar for allegedly using ‘foreign funds to propagate disinformation’, an allegation he denies.
A coalition of human rights organisations released a statement condemning the gulf country in June 2021 for holding Bidali in solitary confinement for three weeks.
The activist was allowed to leave the country in August last year after paying a hefty fine.
2020 Fake news law
An amendment to the penal code in January 2020 made spreading or publishing ‘fake news’ punishable by up to five years in prison or a fine of 100,000 QAR ($27,500).
The amendment, which was introduced as a new article under the penal code’s ‘Crimes against Internal State Security’ section and published alongside other amendments in the official gazette on January 19, 2020, makes spreading rumours or false news with ill-intent punishable by up to five years in prison.
The revised text does not specify who determines what is a rumour or fake news, how that assessment is made, or what standards are to be applied.
Human Rights Watch described the new law as a significant setback for the country’s freedom of expression and a violation of Qatar’s duties under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which it ratified recently to international acclaim.
Doha News 2016 ban
Doha News was blocked by Qatar’s internet service providers (ISPs) in late 2016, marking the first time the news organisation had faced such a restriction. When users attempted to access the site, they were informed that it had been blocked due to ‘prohibited material.’
Doha News continued to operate and publish on its website until the end of 2017, as readers in Qatar were able to access it via virtual private networks (VPNs), which encrypt and reroutes traffic to get around the block.
The independent news organisation was allowed to relaunch in 2020 under new management and a new team, which has also contributed to the improvement of Qatar’s ranking.
Press freedom advocates have welcomed its return, but since its relaunch Doha News has been subjected to numerous complaints with people trying to misuse Qatar’s cyber crimes law. Businesses and individuals in particular have tried to silence the independent media company over its critical coverage of them, simply because they didn’t like it. Those organisations have been largely unsuccessful, but the misuse of these laws together with how firms with big pockets can sue small news outlets like Doha News represents a direct threat to press freedom.
Right to Information draft law
Qatar’s Cabinet has recently approved a draft law on the right to access information to ‘keep pace with global developments’. The proposed legislation covers ‘the right to obtain information’ and has been presented to the Shura Council, which will make the ultimate decision.
The Administrative Control and Transparency Authority drafted the law, which is considered a significant step toward more transparency in the country, considering that no country in the Gulf region has a Right to Information Act.
Freedom of information, as per the United Nations’ definition, states that the “fundamental right of freedom of expression encompasses the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
The Doha Centre for Media Freedom had recommended the draft law back in 2016, in partnership with the Qatar Lawyers Association and the National Human Rights Committee.
However, there have been no further developments since then. The Doha Centre for Media Freedom was closed in 2019 for undisclosed reasons. The centre was Doha’s only independent entity, and its closure sparked concerns about the country’s media freedom.
Other Gulf countries
Qatar ranked higher in the GCC region than any of its neighbours.
The United Arab Emirates ranked 138 out of 180, 7 points lower than than their result last year. When the Gulf crisis erupted in 2017, the UAE barred residents from publicly expressing sympathy for Qatar, threatening them with a 15-year prison sentence and a fine of at least $136,000.
Kuwait’s ranking also decreased a whopping 53 points, going from from 105 in 2021 to 158.
And Saudi Arabia, where the number of imprisoned reporters and bloggers has tripled since 2017, its ranking came at 166. A relative improvement from last year’s 170.
The evaluation method
The international NGO has established a new methodology for compiling its World Press Freedom Index, in collaboration with a committee of seven experts from the academic and media industries.
According to the new methodology, press freedom is defined as “the effective possibility for journalists, as individuals and as groups, to select, produce and disseminate news and information in the public interest, independently from political, economic, legal and social interference, and without threats to their physical and mental safety.”
The Index now includes five new factors to reflect the complexity of press freedom: the political, economic, and sociocultural contexts, in addition to both the country’s legal framework and its security.
In the 180 countries and territories ranked by RSF, indicators are based on a quantitative survey of press freedom violations and abuses against journalists and media, as well as a qualitative study based on responses to a questionnaire with 123 questions from hundreds of press freedom experts selected by RSF, including journalists, academics and human rights defenders.