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Mohammed Rashid al-Ajami

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Mohammed Rashid al-Ajami

Several of the United Nations’ top human rights experts have publicly urged Qatar to release a local poet convicted of inciting the overthrow of the government.

The call comes two years after Qatar’s highest court upheld a 15-year prison sentence against Mohammed Rashid al-Ajami.

Court of Appeal and Court of Cassation

Shabina Khatri

Court of Appeal and Court of Cassation

On the eve of the Court of Cassation’s verdict anniversary, three UN special rapporteurs issued a statement that called his trial flawed and incompatible with international human rights norms that protect freedom of expression.

“The penalty imposed on Mr. al-Ajami is disproportionate and amounts to political censorship to art and expression,” stated Farida Shaheed, the UN special rapporteur on cultural rights.

Despite the arrest of several foreign journalists and ongoing censorship of imported books and magazines, there have been few known detentions in Qatar similar to al-Ajami’s case, in which individuals charged for publishing material are deemed a threat by authorities.

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Article3

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But since al-Ajami’s trial ended, the government has passed a vaguely worded cybercrime law that makes it illegal to violate Qatar’s “social values or principles” online.

Despite the new legislation and al-Ajami’s ongoing incarceration, Qatar Culture Minister Hamad Bin Abdulaziz Al Kuwari said earlier this year that critics are welcome in the country and that the only off-limit topics are those that offend Islamic values.

‘He did not do anything wrong’

The case against al-Ajami – who goes by the name Mohammed Ibn Al-Dheeb in his poetry – stems from a 2010 incident in Cairo, when he was studying Arabic literature with a group of friends.

Al-Ajami was allegedly approached by another Qatari poet named Khalil al-Shabrami, who provoked him into presenting a poem indirectly critical of this country’s ruling family.

That exchange was recorded and subsequently posted on YouTube.

Qatar authorities arrested al-Ajami in November 2011 and charged him with “inciting to overthrow the regime” and “insulting the Emir.”

Appeals court

Shabina S. Khatri

Appeals court

He was initially sentenced to life in prison, but had his term reduced to 15 years in February 2013 by Qatar’s Court of Appeals.

Al-Ajami’s lawyer, former justice minister Najeeb al-Nauimi, has repeatedly said there is no evidence to support the charges.

“He did not insult anyone,” he told Doha News today. “He did not do anything wrong.”

Al-Nauimi said he’s not optimistic that al-Ajami will be pardoned and that the poet’s family told him al-Ajami went on a hunger strike earlier this year. He said he did not know what prompted the protest or how long it lasted, but said the issue has since been resolved.

In 2013, al-Nauimi said there were several problems with the prosecution’s case, namely the suggestion that al-Ajami read his poem in public. That distinction is important because it’s required to support a charge of inciting the overthrow of the government.

Al-Ajami’s supporters have argued said the poet’s remarks were made during a private gathering and posted on YouTube without his knowledge.

At the time of the Court of Cassation hearing, al-Nauimi said there was no evidence that the poem was presented in public other than an uncorroborated confession al-Ajami signed following two hours of interrogations without the presence of a lawyer.

International objections

While the UN special rapporteurs said there are signs al-Ajami did not receive a fair trial, they also argued that he should have never been arrested in the first place.

“The simple fact that a poem was considered to be insulting is insufficient to justify the imposition of penalties,” stated David Kaye, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression. “Laws restricting the right to freedom of expression must never be used as tools for silencing the criticism of authorities and promoting political censorship.”

This is the second time the UN has raised al-Ajami’s case with Qatar and follows a December 2012 letter, sent after the initial life sentence was issued, that asked government officials to justify their actions.

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Ashitaka San / Flickr

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In its response, Khalid bin Jassim Al-Thani – the human rights bureau director at Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs – defended the government’s handling of the case:

“His trial was conducted in accordance with international standards,” Al-Thani wrote, adding the conviction was based on the court’s “free conviction and the legitimate evidence presented before it.”

A UN spokesperson said the Qatar government had not responded to the international organization’s most recent letter, which was sent to the Gulf state several days before it was publicly released.

Thoughts?

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DaveLawler / Flickr

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With reporting from Heba Fahmy and Riham Sheble

People who take or share photos of accident victims in Qatar could face criminal charges under a new draft law approved by Qatar’s cabinet today that explicitly criminalizes the practice, state media has reported.

The proposed amendment to Law No. 11 of 2004 would punish anyone who “captures or transmits pictures of the deceased or injured in accidents without the consent of their representatives, through devices of any kind.”

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European Parliament/Flickr

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The notice of the draft law, published by Qatar News Agency, does not say what penalties convicted individuals could face.

Previously, lawyers told Doha News that residents who post gruesome videos and photos of car accident victims online could be penalized under Qatar’s privacy laws.

However, they conceded that the country’s legal system does not typically prosecute individuals who tweet or post such images on Facebook.

Speaking to Doha News today, former Qatar justice minister Dr. Najeeb Al Nuaimi said the provisions passed by the Cabinet today reinforce the country’s cybercrime law, which was passed last year.

“It is harmful to the families and friends of those who die or are injured in accidents to have pictures of their loved ones displayed in public without their consent,” he said. “It’s their right to protect the social life and image of their loved ones.”

Privacy in public

Like many countries, Qatar has drafted legislation in recent years that aim to protect the privacy of residents despite the ubiquity of smartphones and social media.

Several laws dating back more than a decade already contain sweeping and loosely defined provisions.

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Petar Milošević/Wikicommons

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For example, article 331 of Law No. 11 of 2004 makes it illegal to spread “news, photographs or comments related to a person’s private life, or that of his family.” Article 291, meanwhile, makes it a crime to “(violate) the privacy of a female.”

More recently, Qatar’s cybercrime law attracted criticism for prohibiting the publication of content that violates the country’s “social values” or “general order,” among other controversial provisions.

In practice, the application of Qatar’s privacy laws has been more measured than in some neighboring states.

For example, earlier this year, an Australian woman living in the UAE was jailed and deported for sharing a photo of a car blocking two handicapped parking spots.

In the aftermath of the highly publicized case, Al Nuaimi said the chances of a similar incident happening in Qatar is “highly unlikely.”

“We have Qataris posting all over Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (about) things that they don’t like, or wrong things that they see…Here, it’s seen as doing something good,” he said at the time.

Similarly, in late 2013, Qatar’s Ministry of Interior began asking residents to use its Metrash 2 mobile phone app to safely take photos and report road rule breakers.

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Lord Jim/Facebook

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In response to concerns that violators would file legal complaints against those who reported them, a traffic consultant said the authorities would intervene to scuttle any such lawsuits.

However, lawyers have noted that posting photos of dead bodies and injured victims is a separate issue.

Such images are considered “human and moral” defamation and go against “social and religious” values, attorney Mohammad Al Hagri was quoted as saying earlier this year.

It’s not known when the new legislation about sharing gruesome images will come into effect. Proposed legislation requires the Emir’s signature before it becomes law.

Thoughts?

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Roger H. Goun / Flickr

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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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Niclas/Flickr

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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?