Browsing 'censorship' News

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Popular video and voice calling service Skype has confirmed that it is now blocked in Qatar.

In a post on its FAQ pages, the company said that usage of the app was being stopped by ISPs (internet service providers) in Qatar.

Stating that there was “very little Skype can do about this situation,” it added:

“The best course of action would be for you to speak to your ISP and ask why they are blocking Skype and request that they unblock our site and services.”

Skype’s statement follows a message from Viber to its users last month stating that the service was “now unblocked” following a software update:

The statements from Skype and Viber finally offer some insight into the widespread problems people are having with VoIP apps in Qatar.

Residents first started noticing issues when trying to use Whatsapp, Viber, Skype and Facetime in late August, shortly before Eid.

No public announcement

Despite repeated requests from Doha News for comment, Qatar’s two ISPs, Ooredoo and Vodafone, have remained silent on the VoIP issue.

Vodafone / Facebook

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However, Ooredoo did release a statement over the Eid break denying that it was behind the problem:

“Quality assurance for calling using these apps is out of Ooredoo’s control. However, we can guarantee that the issues are not from Ooredoo Super net. Eid Mubarak.”

Meanwhile, Qatar’s telecoms regulator, the CRA, initially told the Gulf Times that it had launched an investigation into the issues.

However, it has made no further comment and has not responded to any of Doha News’ requests for more information.

Facetime developer Apple and the team behind Viber have also not yet responded.

Ongoing frustration

For the vast majority of Qatar’s residents, VoIP is a lifeline, providing a cheap, easy way to stay in touch with loved ones who don’t live in the country.

Many people have taken to social media in recent weeks pleading for answers from their ISPs:

However, although the most popular apps have stopped working, there do seem to be some workarounds.

Skype link to QNA hack

It remains unclear why Qatar ISPs have blocked VoIP services.

But the government did say that the hacking of Qatar News Agency earlier this year involved the use of Skype.

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The planting of a fake news story on QNA triggered the current GCC crisis. In a statement about it, the Ministry of Interior said:

“On April 22, the hacker exploited a vulnerability in the website, installed the malicious programs and intruded into the network.

The vulnerability was shared with another person via Skype, who accessed it at 5:47 am from an IP address of one of the siege.”

Thoughts?

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Less than one in five Qataris think people should be able to criticize governments online, according to a new media survey.

These nationals were also the least likely people in the region to feel safe discussing politics on social media.

However, Qataris were also the least likely of their Arab peers to want increased regulation of web content.

These results were among the key findings of the fifth and latest edition of Northwestern University in Qatar’s annual Media Use in the Middle East Survey, published this week.

The wide-ranging study, the largest annual one of its kind in the Middle East, examines attitudes about freedom of speech.

It also covers trends in media and news usage across seven countries: Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan and Egypt.

More than 7,000 people in total – 1,000 in each country – were interviewed over the phone and in person between February and March this year, with some questions asked in the US for comparison.

Freedom of speech

The survey was undertaken before the blockade against Qatar began this summer and ahead of what has become a heated PR and information war between the two sides.

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Since then, two of the blockading states – the UAE and Saudi Arabia – have made it illegal for their residents to publicly express support for Qatar.

Still, free speech has been an issue of contention in the region for a long time.

For example, just 13 percent of Qatari nationals agreed with the survey statement “on the internet, it is safe to say whatever one thinks about politics.”

Northwestern University in Qatar

Excerpt from Media Use in the Middle East 2017

This was the lowest in the region, compared to nearly half of all Saudi nationals (47 percent), more than half (51 percent) of Lebanese and nearly one-third (30 percent) of Emirati citizens.

Expats living in Qatar were marginally more confident than their local peers. Some 27 percent of said they felt safe airing their views online.

Qatari citizens were also among the least likely to agree that people should be free to criticize governments on the internet.

Northwestern University in Qatar

Excerpt from Media Use in Middle East 2017

Fewer than one in five (19 percent) of nationals supported this view, compared with 49 percent of Saudi citizens and 70 percent of Lebanese nationals.

Again, more Qatar expats (34 percent) agreed with the statement, although they were still in the minority.

“These results suggest that while social media may provide an avenue for more freedom of expression, many remain reluctant to fully embrace that opportunity,” report co-author Everette E. Dennis, dean and CEO of NU-Q, said in a statement.

That said, only 39 percent of Qataris called for tighter regulation of the internet. And only one quarter were in favor of stricter controls of political content online in 2017.

This is a significant drop from last year, when 60 percent of Qataris called for more regulation.

Surveillance and privacy

Meanwhile, when asked about online surveillance, just 12 percent of Qataris said they were concerned about government spying.

One-third (32 percent) of expats in Qatar said the same.

Slightly more Qataris – 21 percent – said they were worried about private companies spying on them online, but these figures are still low compared to some of their regional peers.

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For example, half of all Saudi nationals were concerned about government and corporate surveillance online.

Across much of the Middle East, concern about online content has led to increasing support for greater regulation. On average, 61 percent of nationals support this.

But among Qataris, that support has fallen nearly 30 percentage points in the last two years.

In 2015, two-thirds of nationals (67 percent) called for this, while this year just 39 percent supported this view.

Northwestern University in Qatar

Excerpt from Media Use in Middle East 2017

When asked more specifically about greater regulation of political content online, just 25 percent of Qataris called for this. Regarding increased regulation of culturally sensitive content, only 37 percent wanted this.

Regionally, many more nationals supported the call for more regulation:

  • UAE: 52 percent;
  • Saudi Arabia: 45 percent;
  • Tunisia: 49 percent; and
  • Lebanon: 61 percent.

Despite this, Qataris are much more conscious about protecting their online privacy, with more than half (53 percent) of nationals calling for increased regulation to ensure this.

Snapchat vs Facebook

Regarding being online, nearly all Qataris report owning a smartphone.

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In fact, Qataris spend the longest on the internet of any of their peers, clocking up a total of 45 hours a week (more than six hours a day), compared to the regional average of 27 hours a week.

Much of this is on social media, and here Qataris have some unique preferences.

For example, Facebook use among Qataris has fallen from 65 percent in 2013 to 22 percent now. By comparison, 55 percent of Saudis said they use Facebook.

Northwestern University in Qatar

Excerpt from Media Use in Middle East 2017

Facebook remains popular among expats in Qatar however, with some 70 percent of those surveyed saying they use it.

Meanwhile, some 64 percent of Qataris use Snapchat – in what the report authors reckon is the highest penetration globally.

Overall, WhatsApp continues to be the most widely used social media and communications tool, with 93 percent of nationals sending messages through it.

As for other social media, nearly half (48 percent) use Twitter and just over one-third (39 percent) use YouTube.

Getting news

Though people in Qatar are increasingly online, they are the least likely in the region to use news apps.

Only one-third of Qataris said they used them at all, compared to 85 percent of Saudis and 86 percent of Emirati nationals.

Qataris are also among the least willing in the region to pay for their news. Fewer than a quarter (24 percent) said they would buy content, down by 47 percentage points in the last two years.

However, they are the only nationals in the region where a majority (60 percent) feel international news coverage of their country is fair.

You can view the full survey results here, and use the interactive tool for detailed findings here.

Thoughts?

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As the dispute between Qatar and its neighbors plays out in headlines across the region, the importance of free and fair media has been talked about a lot.

For Qatar to truly claim the moral ground in this regard, it should repeal its cybercrime law and unblock Doha News, among other things, argues Kenneth Roth, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch. 

Here’s the full text of his speech, which he delivered at this week’s Freedom of Expression conference in Qatar.

Political freedom and especially free expression are at the heart of the current Gulf crisis. That is why so many human rights and journalistic freedom organizations have rallied to Qatar’s defense.

But that also highlights the importance of Qatar maintaining the moral high ground by using this crisis as an opportunity to reform itself.

We are all aware of the terrorism allegations that are said to be the foremost concern.

Omar Chatriwala / Doha News

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I can’t speak to the claims of secret financing. But I am aware that long-term, open Saudi financing of Wahhabi and Salafist preachers and schools has promoted an extreme form of Islam that lies behind many terrorist groups today.

And while we tend to limit the terrorist label to non-governmental groups, the Saudi-led coalition has been causing a humanitarian disaster in Yemen.

Indiscriminate bombing has repeatedly killed many civilians.

An embargo has led to widespread malnutrition and even starvation. A weakened population now faces the world’s largest cholera outbreak, surpassing Haiti’s by a wide margin.

Al Jazeera a ‘dictator’s nightmare’

We’re here to discuss free expression and broader political freedoms. It’s telling that the leading demands against Qatar by its neighbors seem to involve these rights.

Most obvious was the demand to close or control Al Jazeera. In a region known for stultifying official media, AJ was a breath of fresh air.

It wasn’t always perfect. Certain issues, particularly in the Gulf, including Qatar, were taboo.

QNA

Father Emir speaks at 20th anniversary celebrations for Al Jazeera in November.

And in giving a forum to neglected voices, it sometimes crossed the line from featuring legitimate dissenters to giving a podium to those who advocated violence.

But AJ was a key forum for those who wanted to challenge the autocratic rule that remains the norm in the Middle East and North Africa.

It reached its heyday during the Tahrir Square revolution in Egypt. It gave people throughout the region a means to be heard when challenging autocratic, unresponsive, often corrupt rulers.

It was, and continues to be, a dictator’s nightmare.

Muslim brotherhood boogeyman

The second key demand was that Qatar stop supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Muslim Brotherhood means different things in its different manifestations. Some involve violent attacks on civilians and intolerance of dissent—such as Hamas in Gaza.

European External Action Service

Former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood party.

But the essence of what the Gulf monarchs found dangerous about the Muslim Brotherhood is that it represents a vision of Islamic governance based on the ballot box rather than hereditary (or, in the case of Egypt, military) rule.

Like Al Jazeera, the Muslim Brotherhood saw a role for the general public in political discourse and governance. That is a scary proposition for the Gulf royal families and Egypt’s military rulers.

It is noteworthy that Qatar was willing to support the Muslim Brotherhood since this country is no more a democracy than the other Gulf monarchies.

I hope that signals an opening.

WAM

Flags of the boycotting nations (UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt).

But for those other monarchies, the Muslim Brotherhood was anathema.

Indeed, beyond pressuring Qatar to stop supporting Al Jazeera and the Muslim Brotherhood, the Saudi, Emirati, Bahraini and Egyptian governments have rounded up their own Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

Bahrain and UAE have even threatened to punish anyone “expressing sympathy” for Qatar.

What Qatar should do

So at its heart, the current tensions between Qatar and its neighbors is about free expression and political freedom.

Yet I would be remiss, speaking here in Qatar, if I left the impression that Qatar were beyond reproach with respect to free expression.

In 2014, Qatar adopted a cybercrime decree, which criminalizes the spreading of “false news” on the internet and provides for a maximum of three years in prison for anyone who posts online content that “violates social values or principles” or “insults or slanders others”—very broad and vague standards.

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In 2016, Qatar authorities used that law to detain a journalist from the country’s only independent news website, Doha News, after he wrote an article naming a man convicted of a serious criminal offense.

In November last year, Qatari authorities ordered internet service providers to block the Doha News site, which has been running since 2011, making it inaccessible to internet users in Qatar.

Needless to say, these are not the acts of a government that should be trying to maintain the moral higher ground in a dispute about free expression.

Doha News

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Qatar should repeal the provisions of the 2014 Cybercrime Law that limit free expression. And unblock the Doha News website.

Turkey’s media crackdown

There are things that Qatar could do to uphold freedom of expression in its foreign relations as well.

This week, the Qatari Emir will meet with Turkey’s President Erdogan. I realize Turkey is a close ally, but it is also in the midst of one of the world’s most severe crackdowns on journalists.

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The same principles the uphold the freedom of Al Jazeera to speak the truth, even when inconvenient, should apply to Turkish journalists as well. I hope the Emir will remind President Erdogan of those principles.

There are also important things that Qatar could do to ease the burden of the dispute with its neighbors on the AJ journalists who are here as well as other long-term residents.

Human Rights Watch released a report last week on the plight of families who are facing separation because they are of different nationalities.

Qatari women’s rights

The problem is compounded because Qatar, like its neighbors, allows nationality to be passed only by men, not women, in violation of article 9 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), to which Qatar is a state party.

If a Qatari woman is married to a non-Qatari, her children have no citizenship rights in this country, leaving them vulnerable to pressure from Qatar’s Gulf neighbors.

Igor Alexandrov/Wikicommons

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Those neighbors have already ordered their nationals to leave Qatar, which could include children of Qatari women married to a man from one of those states, even though they have spent their entire lives living in Qatar.

Now would be a good time for Qatar to end gender discrimination in the right to confer nationality to one’s children.

Al Jazeera ‘refugees’

Here I want to make special mention of the plight of Al Jazeera workers.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 14 Al Jazeera employees, including seven Egyptians, six Saudis, and one Bahraini who said that they cannot renew their passports and thus are worried about losing their Qatari residency permits.

Many of the Egyptian employees moved to Qatar after authorities in Egypt threatened, intimidated, beat, or arrested them.

Ministry of Interior/Facebook

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One journalist said he applied to renew his Egyptian passport in January 2017, but that Egyptian embassy officials told him in April that they would not renew it. His passport will expire in August.

These AJ employees are classic refugees who need protection.

Qatar’s constitution bans the “extradition of political refugees” and specifies that the granting of asylum shall be regulated by law.

Asylum laws

But Qatar has never promulgated a law on asylum or signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, despite having ratified the Arab Charter on Human Rights which requires Qatar to respect the right of everyone to seek asylum.

Nor does the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) have an office in Qatar where it could review refugee claims.

And Qatar has no other procedures in place that would allow those who fear persecution in their home countries to seek protection in Qatar or challenge their deportation.

Qatar could become a leader in the Gulf, and reaffirm its commitment to protect people like the Al Jazeera employees, by ratifying the Refugee Convention and Protocol, establishing refugee and asylum laws consistent with those standards, and inviting UNHCR to open an office here.

Josh Hughes/Flickr

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So to conclude, there are important things that Qatar can do to maintain the moral high ground from which it has so greatly benefited in its dispute with its neighbors.

As the old adage goes, every crisis is also an opportunity.

Yes, Qatar today faces a crisis, but it is also an opportunity to become a regional leader on human rights.

I hope Qatar will seize that opportunity. Thoughts?