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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.

Media coverage

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.

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J. Zach Hollo

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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:

Al-Jufairi added that the number of deaths in Qatar are presented without comparisons to mortality rates in other countries.

Football players take a photo of themselves at the construction site of a World Cup stadium in Russia.

FIFA / 2018 LOC

Football players take a photo of themselves at the construction site of a World Cup stadium in Russia.

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.

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They can often already been seen publishing stories that accuse foreign media of bias and being part of a conspiracy against the country.

In 2013, Darwish S. Ahmed – the editor-in-chief of the Gulf Timeswas 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.

Thoughts?

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WheelIdeas

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With reporting from Heba Fahmy

In the latest reshuffling of the Doha Centre for Media Freedom (DCMF), the founding chairperson of the journalism advocacy organization has been replaced by the country’s culture minister, and a new acting director has been named.

The announcement was made on DCMF’s website yesterday in a brief statement.

The new acting director is Abdulrahman Nasser Al-Obaidan, who is an advisor for Qatar Media and previously held the position of general-director of the country’s radio and TV authority, according to Al Sharq.

The former chair, Moroccan Abdul Jalil Alami, once served as advisor to Sheikha Moza Bint Nasser and was previously an educational expert in the office of Qatar’s former Emir.

Jan Keulen

Omar Chatriwala/Flickr

Jan Keulen

Along with heading DCMF’s executive board, Alami is believed to have played a role in the center’s day-to-day operations since its director, Jan Keulen, was fired in December 2013.

The organization – which under Keulen focused on helping distressed journalists abroad, media literacy in Qatar schools and training for professional journalists – has kept a relatively low profile in the last year as it operated without a director.

Some hope that the latest restructuring will spur the organization to play a more active role in promoting press freedom in Qatar, as well as strengthen the country’s position as a media hub alongside institutions such as Al Jazeera Media Network and the journalism program at Northwestern University in Qatar.

Speaking to Doha News this afternoon, Keulen noted that DCMF’s three-line press release made no mention of the organization’s future direction or of Alami’s tenure with the organization.

“From the beginning, when the center was founded, he was one of the key figures. I’m very surprised the way they announced (the changes) … (Alami) wasn’t mentioned, wasn’t thanked – nothing.”

Replacing Alami is Qatar Culture Minister Hamad bin Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari, who recently said foreign critics are welcome to express contrarian viewpoints in the country, as long as they did not “offend” Islamic values.

The minister previously held a seat on the four-person executive board as head of the DCMF’s advisory committee. The board also consisted of the director, deputy-director and chairperson.

Other appointments

Saleh Al-Shawi, who was DCMF’s financial director, and Maryam Al-Khater – who Keulen said served as deputy-director and was rarely in Qatar during his tenure – round out the new board appointments.

The DCMF said no one was available today to discuss the reshuffling, which Keulen noted concentrates “a lot of power and influence in media issues in the hands of a very few people.”

While noting that it is not unusual for a minister to have an important say in the operations of a government-funded organization such as DCMF, Keulen nevertheless said it was regrettable that there are not more cultural figures, journalists and intellectuals from Qatar and other Arab countries on the center’s board and advisory committee.

He said he visited Qatar late last year and that many of the training, media literacy and journalistic assistance programs that had been “flourishing” under DCMF’s previous leadership teams “were almost inactive.”

One of many demonstrations for formerly jailed AJE journalists.

Kamahl Santamaria/Twitter

One of many demonstrations for formerly jailed AJE journalists.

DCMF lists several activities it has undertaken over the last year, including offering assistance to distressed journalists abroad.

This includes repeatedly calling on Egypt’s courts to drop charges against three Al Jazeera journalists imprisoned for more than a year, issuing a report on the plight of journalists living in exile and providing safety training to Syrian journalists.

In recent months, the organization also strongly condemned the murder of a Japanese journalist by ISIL fighters and called for the “creation of a safe media environment for media professionals” and Muslim minorities following the Charlie Hebdo attack – along with urging media organizations to “avoid publishing provocative material.

Keulen – who was criticized by some for not pushing harder for domestic reforms when he was in Qatar – conceded that running a media advocacy organization in a country that itself “has a lot of work to do” in promoting and strengthening the rights of journalists had its challenges.

“When you have a press freedom center in your country that draws a lot of attention, it implies some commitment. There are some contradictions there. All of us who have been involved in the center know this.”

What impact do you think DCMF could do to have a positive impact in Qatar and abroad? Thoughts?

Ayman BardawilThe Doha Centre for Media Freedom is losing another member of its senior management team, less than a week after the firing of the institution’s director.

Outgoing program manager Ayman Bardawil confirmed to Doha News on Wednesday that he had quit, but said he wasn’t comfortable discussing the details or circumstances surrounding his decision for now.

The resignation is likely to spark more questions about the future of the organization, where employees were shocked and upset to learn about the recent firing of former director Jan Keulen.

The Dutchman apparently arrived at work last week to find a letter on his desk informing him that he’d been terminated. No reason was given, but a disagreement had been simmering for months between Keulen and an advisor over who had the authority to pay for projects and contracts.

‘Great loss’

When reached by phone on Wednesday, Keulen – who said he hired Bardawil roughly two-and-a-half years ago, not long after he arrived at DCMF – called the resignation “a great loss” to the center.

“He is a media development expert … I was extremely happy to have him. It’s not that easy to find people with years of experience working in this field.”

The former director declined to comment on Bardawil’s motivations for quitting.

Keulen said Bardawil was effectively the center’s second-in-command. His pending departure – it is not clear when exactly Bardawil will leave – means the formerly three-person management team has been reduced to one. DCMF’s financial and administration manager, Saleh al-Shawi, will oversee its day-to-day operations for the time being.

Founded in 2008, DCMF conducts media literacy training in Qatar schools and works with professional journalists on using social media and other tools. It also focuses on helping distressed journalists abroad, but has been criticized for not pushing harder for press freedoms at home.

Open letter

Meanwhile, in responses to questions about the organization and Keulen’s termination, former employee Ole Chavannes sent an open letter to Doha News this week. Chavannes, who served as DCMF’s senior coordinator for emergency assistance before leaving this year, described the work environment:

Thoughts?