Browsing 'censorship' News

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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.

QNA

For illustrative purposes only.

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.

Colin Harris/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

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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Photo for illustrative purposes only.

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

DN

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.

Popicinio/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

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

Photo for illustrative purposes only

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

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

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

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

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?

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The ongoing Gulf dispute has spurred a propaganda war among the region’s newspapers.

In this opinion piece, Doha News Editor-at-Large Victoria Scott discusses how several misleading reports in Qatari media have caused some residents to dismiss other, less glowing stories as “fake” – and why this is bad news for the country’s future.

It is a truly disheartening experience to spend days researching and writing a news story that you know will be branded “fake,” simply because some people don’t like what it says.

Thanks to US President 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

DN

Doha News is Qatar’s only independent source of national journalism, and as such has always stuck out amid a crowd of sycophantic newspapers and online outlets.

Even before the Gulf dispute began, reading a Qatari newspaper was 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 roads reassured you that everything was running smoothly in Qatar.

Oh, and by the way – McDonald’s has a new menu and a revolutionary new model of vacuum cleaner is out in all department stores for a very reasonable price – so that’s nice.

Propaganda war

But the current Gulf crisis has taken glowing media coverage of Qatar to a whole other level.

To be fair, daily newspapers in boycotting countries are currently full of extraordinary stories. Many of these are either tenuously extrapolated half-truths or utter, baldfaced lies.

Khalid Albaih

For illustrative purposes only.

It is not surprising then that Qatar’s media is doing its part to push the balance in the other direction.

Every day since the crisis began, they have all carried stories that I believe fall into the propaganda category.

The majority lack statistics or facts, and simply seek to paint a reassuring picture.

For example, newspapers recently ran stories saying London is showing solidarity with Qatar because several taxi cabs bore supportive Qatar messages.

The Peninsula

A recent headline in The Peninsula

This reflected a complete misunderstanding (or misrepresentation) of the way advertising works.

London is clearly not “showing solidarity” – an 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).

Hamad International Airport

Sanjiban Ghosh/Flickr

Hamad International Airport

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.

‘Fake news’

I have noticed that many Doha News readers are starting to dismiss factual stories as fiction, simply because they don’t fit the rosy picture painted by other outlets.

This is dangerous.

A major new study published by the Columbia Journalism Review recently analyzed a worrying trend in the US.

There, right-wing Americans abandoned traditional news sources during the recent presidential election in favor of right-wing publications that only reinforced their own viewpoint.

Donald J. Trump/Facebook

US President Donald Trump

The researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) concluded that this ended up skewing coverage of the election in all US media. This is because some issues – such as immigration and Hillary Clinton’s emails – got more play than others.

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 that 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 that could be vaguely regarded as “negative,” is causing a similar shift away from reality 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.

Omar Chatriwala / Doha News

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

The team then called a number of banks and exchange firms in both the UK and the US, who confirmed that they had indeed temporarily ceased to buy riyals because 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, 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.

The currency situation was incredibly unusual, and did indicate something was awry.

QNA denial

However, it may not surprise you to read that Qatar’s local papers were not reporting the same story.

Many were initially silent on the subject.

Neha Rashid / Doha News

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

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.”

Given all the research I had recently conducted, I knew this to be untrue. But readers of Qatar’s dailies did not.

It’s no surprise then 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.

Reem Saad / Doha News

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

What worries me now is that Qatar’s residents will eventually become so desensitized 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 past eight years, such as:

Today, many readers would probably dismiss these stories as 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.

Realizing 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.

You can follow Victoria Scott on Twitter.