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Media freedom in Qatar has continued to deteriorate for the fourth year in a row, according to a new report by Reporters Without Borders.

Qatar is now ranked 123rd out of 180 countries on the 2016 World Press Freedom Index.

Down six spots from last year, the score is the lowest the country has seen in at least a decade.

RSF

2016 World Press Freedom Index. Orange is problematic, red is “bad” and black is “very bad.”

The index measures media independence and respect for the safety and freedom of journalists, among other things.

Each country’s score is calculated by experts’ answers to questionnaires, as well as “data on abuses and violence against journalists” last year.

Speaking to Doha News, Alexandra El Khazen, head of RSF’s Middle East desk, said Qatar dropped in the rankings for several reasons.

Mostly, however, it’s because nothing was done “to significantly improve the work environment for journalists,” she said.

Despite the tumble, Qatar remains ahead of the rest of the Gulf, except for Kuwait and the UAE.

Doha News

El Khazen pointed out that a Danish film crew was detained and questioned while in Qatar last year.

Their experience comes after authorities arrested two different film crews in 2015. This has made journalists more apprehensive about investigating and reporting on the country, RSF said at the time.

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This year, the Paris-based organization said reporters continue to have “little leeway” to report stories in the face of an “oppressive legislative arsenal and “draconian system of censorship.”

El Khazen said one example of this is the government’s blocking of Doha News inside the country six months ago due to “licensing issues.”

RSF and rights groups have denounced the ban as censorship on one of the country’s only independent media outlets.

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And even the US State Department theorized that the blocking of DN had to do with its “coverage of socially sensitive issues ranging from labor rights to homosexuality.”

DN has since moved its operations outside of the country so that it is no longer violating any rules, but the government has still not unblocked it.

However, in March, RSF launched a mirrored version of the Doha News website that is accessible in Qatar to mark the World Day Against Cyber-Censorship.

Al Jazeera

RSF does acknowledge that in Qatar, one bright spot amid a sea of self-censorship is Al Jazeera, which swept an awards ceremony in the US last week.

It won Broadcaster of the Year, as well as five gold world medals, 14 silver and seven bronze ones at the New York Festivals World’s Best TV & Films awards.

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Some of the award-winning reports spotlighted investigations in Afghanistan, Hong Kong and India.

But according to RSF, while the network “has transformed the media landscape in the rest of the Arab world,” it “ignores what happens in Qatar itself.”

Al Jazeera is government-funded. So is journalism and communications school Northwestern University in Qatar and the Doha Centre for Media Freedom.

Strict laws

Meanwhile, local journalists continue to be legally bound to Qatar’s media law, which has not been formally updated since 1979.

Under that, the government has the right to use “prior restraint.” This means it can order news outlets not to cover certain subjects.

The Cabinet also has the authority to shut down newspapers and cancel their licenses, making it almost impossible to cover government affairs critically.

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And Qatar’s cybercrime law, which was passed in 2014, has made it easier for criminals and those with personal agendas to silence others, including journalists.

This is because of its controversial privacy provisions. These make it illegal to publish news related to the personal or family life of individuals – even if the information is true.

The cybercrime law also contains a vaguely worded clause that criminalizes any content found to violate the country’s “social values” or “general order.”

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Dr. Najeeb Al Nuami

Last year, Qatar’s former justice minister publicly denounced the law. Najeeb Al Nuaimi called it a “tool of intimidation” that “was like a knife held close to the necks of writers, activists and journalists.”

Months later, he was banned from leaving Qatar over apparent charges of professional misconduct. He has said the accusations are baseless.

Global woes

Overall, it was a bad year for journalism around the world, with nearly two thirds (62.2%) of the countries measured deteriorating in terms of media freedom. We are now at a “tipping point,” RSF said in its report.

It added that the erosion of free media in democracies has been a particularly troubling development. Both the US and UK fell two spots in the latest rankings.

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According to RSF:

“We have reached the age of post-truth, propaganda, and suppression of freedoms – especially in democracies.

In sickening statements, draconian laws, conflicts of interest, and even the use of physical violence, democratic governments are trampling on a freedom that should, in principle, be one of their leading performance indicators,” it said.

The top-scoring nations on this year’s Index were Norway, Sweden and Finland.

Turkmenistan, Eritrea and North Korea held the bottom three positions.

Within the GCC, Kuwait ranked the highest at 104th, falling one spot from last year.

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It was followed by Qatar (123rd), the UAE (steady at 119th), Oman (down one spot to 126th), Bahrain (down two spots to 164th) and Saudi Arabia (down three spots to 168th).

Gulf states were brought down in the rankings because topics like ruling families and Islam continue to remain off limits to journalists there, El Khazen said.

Additionally, RSF slammed the UAE’s increasing surveillance of journalists and Saudi Arabia’s lack of independent media.

Thoughts?

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The arrests last year of two foreign film crews in Qatar has made journalists more apprehensive about investigating and reporting on the country, according to a media rights watchdog.

Reporters Without Borders knocked Qatar down two spots in its annual World Press Freedom Index, released yesterday. Qatar now sits in 117th place among 180 nations included in the ranking, behind Kuwait but still ahead of the other GCC countries.

The Paris-based organization attributed the nation’s worsening score to the “arbitrary detention of journalists,” namely the arrest of German reporter Florian Bauer in March 2015 and, two months later, BBC journalist Mark Lobel.

Florian Bauer

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Florian Bauer

“This affects the way journalists see their freedom to circulate around the country and cover a story,” Alexandra El Khazen, the head of Reporters Without Borders’ Middle East Desk, told Doha News.

Continuous drop

This is the third straight year that Qatar has slipped in the organization’s rankings.

The country’s score continues to be weighed down by a cybercrime law approved in 2014 that makes it illegal to publish “false news” or create online content that’s deemed harmful to the country’s “social values” or “general order.”

Critics say provisions of the law are open to abuse by authorities and “severely restrict freedom of expression.”

To date, the cybercrime law appears to have been primarily used in cases of libel – which was already a criminal offense in Qatar – involving electronic communication.

But its limited application thus far doesn’t reassure some industry observers.

“It’s not welcoming journalists to push boundaries or practice traditional journalism,” Matt Duffy, an expert on journalism and media laws in the Middle East, told Doha News.

“It’s always sitting there, as a journalist is at their computer (deciding what stories to write). That cybercrime law is always sitting there,” added Duffy, who is an assistant professor in the School of Communication and Media at Kennesaw State University.

Self-censorship

Despite Qatar’s persistently low ranking on the Reporters Without Borders index, some people inside the country say they see signs of improvement.

Last month, Northwestern University in Qatar dean and CEO Everette Dennis told Doha News that he believes local news coverage has become more robust, although journalists are still “measured” in most of their reporting.

NU-Q dean Everette Dennis

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NU-Q dean Everette Dennis

“There are things being written about now … in ways that might not have taken place in the past,” he said.

However, there is still a high degree of self-censorship practised by journalists in Qatar.

The country’s major daily newspapers are owned by individuals with ties to other large businesses owners as well as government officials, and are not keen to publish articles critical of the nation or its leaders.

Following the release of Amnesty International’s findings late last month on construction workers at Khalifa International Stadium, several newspapers published articles defending Qatar and “slamming” the report.

However, none actually repeated Amnesty’s allegations that human rights abuses are occurring at a World Cup construction site.

Construction at Khalifa Stadium

Peter Kovessy / Doha News

Khalifa Stadium

El Khazen said the self-censorship would need to be scaled back before Qatar can move up her organization’s index:

“Media outlets being able to tackle different kind of topics, have more debates and be more outspoken,” she said.

Legislative issue

Both El Khazen and Duffy said laws limiting press freedoms – including Qatar’s cybercrime legislation – should also be amended.

Duffy added that defamation should be treated as a civil, rather than criminal, offense. At the moment, a complaint could theoretically lead to an individual being arrested and held in jail before appearing in court.

“That can be used to intimidate journalists,” he said, adding:

“Despite Al Jazeera being headquartered in Qatar, the country doesn’t have any legal protection (for journalists) to work … without encumbrance.”

The top-scoring nations on this year’s Reporters Without Borders Index were Finland, the Netherlands and Norway. Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea held the bottom three positions.

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Within the GCC, Kuwait ranked the highest at 103rd. It was followed by Qatar (117), the UAE (119), Oman (125), Bahrain (162) and Saudi Arabia (165).

El Khazen said there are several common factors weighing down the rankings of the Gulf states, such as bans on criticizing the region’s ruling families and Islam.

Bahrain and Saudi Arabia fared particularly poorly because of the number of imprisoned journalists in those countries, she added.

Thoughts?

Reporter's notebook

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After two years of climbing in the ranks of an international press freedom index, Qatar’s standing has fallen slightly in 2014, amid fears that the country’s new cybercrime law would add new restrictions to online expression.

The French media advocacy organization Reporters Without Borders said Qatar ranked 113th out of 180 countries in its most recent study. That’s slightly worse than last year, when Qatar ranked 110th out of 179 countries.

Among its Gulf neighbors, Qatar ranked behind only Kuwait (91st) and finished ahead of the UAE (118th), Oman (134th), Bahrain (163rd) and Saudi Arabia (164th).

“It’s not a strong worsening, but the situation is concerning,” Soazig Dollet, who leads Reporters Without Borders’ Middle East and North Africa desk, told Doha News.

“There are no clear signs of positive will from the authorities to (allow) more freedom of expression in the country.”

Cybercrime law

Proposed legislation that would make it a crime to spread “false news” and would punish anyone who publishes information that infringes on Qatar’s “social principles or values” is one factor weighing on Qatar’s rankings, Dollet said.

Those provisions of the country’s draft cybercrime law – which is primarily focused on preventing online fraud and attacks on computer networks – drew criticism from the Doha Centre for Media Freedom and the Committee to Protect Journalists when they were first released last May.

That law received both Cabinet and Advisory Council approval this month, although it is not clear if the legislation still contains sections that tighten restrictions on what material can be published online.

Doha News has not been able to obtain a copy of the draft law or pose questions about its contents to the government. Spokespeople from both ictQatar and the Ministry of Interior said the legislation was not within their jurisdiction.

Earlier this month, a recap of a cabinet meeting by state news agency QNA made no mention of those controversial sections, raising the possibility that they’ve been removed.

However, a report in this week’s Peninsula said that the law would punish anyone who hosted a website that is “intended to subvert the law of the land or for spreading false news that may harm the country’s safety and security.”

Chilling effect

If Qatar were to move forward with the cybercrime law and its provisions on news, the country’s journalism organizations may be motivated to further self-censor themselves, argues Matt J. Duffy, an expert on journalism and media laws in the Middle East and an assistant professor at Kennesaw State University in the US.

Other countries with laws that attempt to legislate truthfulness in reporting have seen a negative impact on free expression, he added in an interview with Doha News.

“There is no country with a good press freedom ranking that has a false news law on the books. The only result is that it has is impeding good journalism.”

Duffy argued that all journalists attempt to be accurate in their accounts, but that the industry norm of attributing information to sources – which may or may not be truthful in their accounts – makes such a demand impossible, leading to self-censorship.

Similarly, laws prohibiting reporting on issues that may disrupt the social order are overly broad and are used by governments to limit criticism and dissent, said Duffy, who formerly worked as a journalism and media ethics professor in the UAE before being sacked suddenly in 2012.

For example, in a recent report, Duffy noted that the Emirates sentenced a social media activist to 10 months in prison for tweeting about a trial and criticizing some of the proceedings under a law prohibiting the spread of “any incorrect, inaccurate, or misleading information which may damage the interests of the state or injures its reputation, prestige, or stature.”

Qatar legislation

Another piece of controversial legislation that gained traction in Qatar – but has not actually been passed – is a new media law, to update the one established in 1979.

Like many media observers, Duffy said he is still waiting for Qatar to introduce this law. It has been in the works for several years, but no update on its development has surfaced in more than a year.

Though the law prohibits the jailing of journalists, it does allow for imposing steep penalties that editors have said reporters would be unable to pay, landing them in jail anyway.

Journalists here have also expressed concern over certain clauses in the draft version of the bill – specifically vague provisions that would bar critical reporting on Arab and friendly countries, and would penalize media organizations for published for running anything that could be deemed offensive to Qatar’s ruling family or damaging to national interests.

Duffy concedes that there are “major problems” with the legislation, but said Qatar would still be better off with this media law.

“It would strengthen journalism,” he said. “There are provisions in the law that offer more protection to journalists … (as well as) instructions to government agencies to be more transparent.”

One challenge to advancing media rights in Qatar is the lower value that Gulf society places on journalism relative to other parts of the world, including non-Western nations, Duffy argued.

“(In some parts of the world), they value journalists as watchdogs to keep an eye on the powerful, whether it businessmen or government (officials),” he said. “In the Arab world, and particularly in the GCC, they don’t see journalism embraced that way.”

Thoughts?