Qatar

By Geoff Sloan

The State of Qatar adopted its flag around the time of its 1971 independence.

I. Introduction

The State of Qatar is a more pertinent country in the global discussion on free press and free speech issues than one might realize. In many ways, Qatar has become like a small island nation in most respects, but despite this, it has had its finger on the pulse of major global phenomena for years. Qatar continues to be at the center of world affairs which all impact the domestic conversation because of The Arab Spring, Qatari regime change, ties to the west, the state-funded media giant Al Jazeera, and its robust economy. As the world’s second largest Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) exporter (Jaganathan 2018), a geopolitical outlier in terms of its relations with Iran, Israel and the United States, and a land-neighbor of only Saudi Arabia, Qatar has taken on many of the unique and independent qualities of an island-nation despite still being connected to the Arabian Peninsula. It is also important to note that Qatar has a strategic military position as home of one of the largest air force bases in the region, Al Udeid Air Base (Blanchard 2014). This acts as a hub for the United States’ Armed Forces Central Command (CENTCOM) and contributes to operations on ISIS, the conflict in Yemen, Afghanistan, and other more.

To make for an even more interesting current and unique political climate, Qatar is currently undergoing a diplomatic rift with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and other nations in the region to varying degrees as of June 2017; this barred Qatar from the region as travel, commerce, and even communication can no longer freely pass between Qatar and many of the nearby countries.

Coming in at 125 out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) 2018 World Press Freedom Index (“2018 World Press Freedom Index” 2018), Qatar actually ranks fairly low compared to the that Reporters Without Borders chose to define and rank in their 2018 report. An impactful piece of this report regarding press freedoms is that (1) Al Jazeera’s exercising of press freedoms is often done outside the borders of Qatar and despite these freedoms is still subjected to some direct and indirect controls by the government; (2) the RSF 2018 report yielded an abuse score of zero meaning comparatively no abuse, and (3) the change from 2017 to 2018 on the RSF report was Qatar dropping two places, giving it a 2018 agglomerated score of 40.16. An update to this report was released in April 2019 where Qatar continued to decline on the list, dropping another three places to land at 128 out of 180 for the 2019 report (RSF 2019).

II. Historical Background

The Al-Thani family has had a monarchical rule over Qatar for three generations of non-renewable-resource-rich producing years and independence from the British. The Al-Thani leadership, influence, and rule has been ongoing even longer than this, dating back to 1878 before oil exports began (CIA 2019). With Qatar being a country with fewer than 100 years of independence, the Al-Thanis have captivated much of the rule during its history. Despite some small legislative abilities which grant some voting rights to citizens of Qatar in recent years, most decisions are made by a select few within the Al-Thani family or by those they have selected– a selection not always being based on merit. Due to this very centralized and less-than-democratic system, there is more ability for the Al-Thanis to conduct state-funded media while also restricting free speech with greater control.

Qatar is a Gulf Cooperation-Council (GCC) and League of Arab States (LAS) member as well as a now former member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) as of January 2019 (Colgan 2018). With a citizen population that is only 12% of the country’s total population, these three intergovernmental ties have meant the Qatari economy has created a massive amount of wealth for a very small population in a relatively short amount of time (Snoj 2017). This large wealth for a select few has created a dependency on non-renewable resource production, namely LNG, and therefore meant that the effects of The Arab Spring, which began a wave of Arab pushback and even regime change in the Middle East and North Africa world (MENA), had less impact on Qatar than its other Arab neighbors due to relative stability ensured by that economy created from non-renewable-resource production. Having a minimal impact during the monumental Arab Spring meant that few changes to free speech and free press rights were affected following 2012 which was a crux of the movement.

Also important to note, while this country is very small by land size, its citizenry is similarly small. Most of the workers in Qatar are expatriates; despite proclaimed attempts at reform, this includes forced labor through the Kafala system which is made up of foreign workers who are not afforded the same rights as Qatari citizens nor their expatriate workers with higher paying positions (Safety & Health Practitioner 2014). Many Kafala system workers such as Nepalese workers without legal passage back to Nepal build infrastructure or carryout low skill and low paid jobs like the 2022 World Cup stadiums, highway infrastructure, and modern skyscraper projects. Alternatively, contracted expats, often from the global north, are often hired for specific jobs with high skill and high pay. This places Qatari citizens at the top of the social and cultural hierarchy, contracted expats in the middle, and Kafala workers at the bottom. This not only affects salaries, but also basic rights afforded to each level in the hierarchy, including freedom of speech rights. 

III. Free Speech

Historically, Qatar has taken actions to limit its citizenries and sizeable expatriate populations’ abilities to speak with large amounts of freedom. Qatar’s constitution is unique in the Persian Gulf in that it actually states a protection of “freedom of expression of opinion.” As Ashutosh Bhagwat points out, this protection is modified in practice so that the laws written work to make the Al-Thani family, Islam and the Qatari government off-limits for both individuals attempting to exercise free speech and journalists working for the press.

With authoritarian and less-than-democratic governing systems, quick changes to major policy points are more possible given there are less individuals or parties to sign off on policy changes and the government of Qatar is small relative to most states. With this in mind, when Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani took control of Qatar in 2013, there was a loosening of strict speech controls for the first time in the nation’s short history.

When the ongoing Qatari Gulf Diplomatic Crisis was instigated, those aforementioned countries which cut ties with Qatar announced a list of 13 demands that made the abrupt diplomatic fissure public. The list of demands have been deemed by many Qataris to be an unexpected and cruel action taken for political gain rather than national security and the other reasons those states announced their cutting of ties; many of these same Qataris have taken to social media to continuously express their disdain for what they perceive to be the treatment by Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE Interestingly enough, this same speech on social media has actually been outlawed in many of the countries which instigated the Gulf Crisis such as the UAE. 

During The Arab Spring, Qatar’s limited impact, as compared to other Arab countries that experienced a wide array of effects including regime change, by the movement is a testament to how solid the government-populace relationship is. This relationship also details how relatively little pushback takes place with less-than-democratic style governments.

For example, during The Arab Spring the NATO-operated ousting of Libya’s four-decade-long leader Muammar Ghaddafi was backed in tantum with Qatar’s leadership. As detailed after the operation, interviews with Doha based leaders “suggest that there is not a hint of evidence that the Qatari elite conducted anything approaching a rigorous risk assessment or any other kind of systematic interrogation of the idea once the emir had decided on the course of action” (Dagher, Levinson, and Coker 2011).

IV. Free Press

Interestingly enough, Qatar has actually seen increased press freedoms since Hamad al-Thani overtook control of the government in 1995 after a bloodless coup d’état that overthrew his own father. With this taken into account, the creation and rise of Al Jazeera as a major media and news network has seen the creation of a dichotomy between how we assume Qatar’s poor score on the World Press Freedom Index to be and the surprisingly free and unique reporting abilities by Al Jazeera.

One major criticism of Qatar’s press is that it has often done what some consider an objectively good job at reporting on regimes in a non-biased manner other than Qatar’s own government . The idea that anything goes, except Qatar in Qatari press reporting has stifled Qatar’s ability to have a free and fair press. While it often does a uniquely good job of reporting on the rest of the world, especially countries which often do not gain media attention, Qatar-based media such as Al Jazeera and  Qatar News Agency (QNA). 

On the world stage, Al Jazeera is a household name in international 24-hour news reporting through satellite, internet, and broadcast television around the world. It was established in 1996 out of Doha, Qatar, and receives copious state funding. This world-renowned news network came under fire as a bargaining chip with those aforementioned countries that announced they would cut diplomatic ties with Qatar throughout 2017. Many of those countries involved with the diplomatic rift demanded Al Jazeera be forcibly closed in order to restore diplomatic ties. As of February 2019, Al Jazeera remains fully operational and the diplomatic rift at a stalemate.

Despite Al Jazeera’s stellar reporting record, outside-the-box journalism, freedom to report on many areas of the world often not receiving coverage, and long list of awards, Qatar is home to other news outlets that do not yield such stellar results. The constellation of award-winning work, like Al Jazeera, the other news outlets based in Qatar, the difficulty of international communications during the diplomatic rift, and how all the comparison to the United States’ press freedoms will all be key points of examination over press freedoms and worth adding to the fabric of this examination’s context.

Using Qatar for this press freedom analysis is a peculiar example of parallel yet very different media freedom. As mentioned before, the excellent reporting by Al Jazeera is unique not only within Qatar but around the world. The massive news agency has one of the largest numbers of bureaus around the world – more than CNN or other major news outlets – yielding it capable of reporting in areas often not covered well or covered at all. This access to resources coupled with Al Jazeera’s expressed intent on covering the global south from a global south perspective is also unique and would otherwise be difficult to execute if Al Jazeera were based out of another country.

Given this, we do see there are plentiful reasons Qatar ranks so low on the World Press Freedom Index. While Al Jazeera is state funded, it is not explicitly state operated. Most other news sources coming out of Qatar are, in fact, state funded and operated, aside from Al Jazeera. One glaring example of the effects from state funding and operation is the Qatar News Agency (QNA). More often than not conducted in Arabic, this news agency reports almost exclusively on matters relevant to Qatar or Qatari foreign relations. With the state operation of QNA, the reporting often follows more promotion rather than objective take on all Qatari news; it is even known to abstain from certain stories or certain perspective stories that have the potential to portray Qatar in a negative light.

Similarly, within the same context of this crisis, there has been some back and forth regarding the Qatari government’s blockage of the what Human Rights Watch deemed “the country’s only independent news website.” Qatari authorities made the move to block access to this independent news website, Doha News, in November 2016 to the people in Qatar via a legal blockage on the country’s two internet service providers, Vodafone and Ooredoo. There were some reports that internet users in Qatar could gain access after November 2016 but as recently as February 2018, Doha News and other internet users in Qatar reported that access to the site was unavailable (HRW 2018).

The cases of QNA, Al Jazeera, and Doha News are strong examples of how a governance system in a country such as Qatar can lead to such impacts on news coverage– further indicating that freedoms of the press continue to be areas in need of improvement and in the spotlight compared to issues of free speech.

V. Critical Comparison

As freedoms of the press are the most popular, often most contested, and most discussed area of analysis in this work, Al Jazeera and other Qatari news outlets compare to America ones mainly in their realm of funding and how that funding impacts the ways those outlets’ freedoms of the press are carried out. As discussed before, Al Jazeera and other outlets have limited breadth on what they can report on, almost never being allowed to cover any controversy concerning the Al-Thani family, Islam and the Qatari government. In a similar fashion, the Voice of America (VOA) is a U.S.-funded news outlet that has seen some similar free press controversy. VOA is funded by the U.S. government through the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) (Newsmax 2010). In 2010, the USAGM was found to have conspired with the U.S. National Security Council, a part of the then-Obama White House, to have released a news story in a public relations style rather than objective journalism style manner than condemned the Iranian government without due process follow through in its reporting or criticism.

With this controversial story being published and an obvious interference by the American government on the fourth estate, a prime example of how government-funded media degrading into state-sponsored messages showed how both the United States and Qatar deal with similar issues in state-funded and operated news outlets and their less-than-objective reporting. It is equally important to note that the U.S. is considerably higher on the RSF freedom index, coming in at 45th overall compared to Qatar’s 125th. A main component of this is the United States’ ability to have news media which are free from almost all government obstruction, mainly prior restraint before publication. This dates back to the monumental Near v. Minnesota U.S. Supreme Court case where prior restraint was found unconstitutional under the First Amendment except in exceptional circumstances such as national security (“Near v. State of Minnesota Ex Rel. Olson | Cases | Westlaw” 1931). While this ruling would theoretically run in line with what was previously mentioned in Qatar’s constitution, in practice, this massive freedom and necessary trait to free press is simply not present in Qatar as it is in the U.S.

Alternatively, the U.S. and Qatar have not had such similar outcomes in the realm of speech freedoms, especially regarding the access to and freedom of speech through social media over the actions taken by each populations’ respective government and those of other governments.

VI. Conclusion

 While Qatar has a short history and relatively little action in the sense of censorship like many of the usual suspects like China, Egypt and Turkey, Qatar has created legislative barriers to free speech. Opposition to the government, its ruling Al Thani family and the prominent religion of Sunni Islam in Qatar have all been areas where both free speech and therefore free press is unable to occur.

Similar issues occasionally arise in the U.S. like in the similar cases between the VOA and Al Jazeera but by-and-large there are far greater freedoms of press in the United States– something that’s reflected well in the RSF reports year after year. Finally, with the every-changing state of freedoms of speech, the press and expression, we see that changes can occur even faster in less-democratic systems like Qatar but also in systems like that of the United States’. With this said, changes to these freedoms are ongoing as the Qatari Gulf Diplomatic Crisis carries on into its third year and continues to change the role of Al Jazeera, all Qatari news outlets and the role that citizens and expatriates play in the national and international conversation. Looking forward, only time will tell how both the U.S. and Qatar shape their own freedoms to include or exclude the rights of their people, their foreign population and their fourth estate.

References

“2018 World Press Freedom Index.” 2018. RSF. 2018. https://rsf.org/en/ranking_table.

Blanchard, Christopher. 2014. “Qatar: Background and U.S. Relations.,” November, 6.

CIA. 2019. “Middle East :: Qatar — The World Factbook – Central Intelligence Agency.” 2019. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/qa.html.

Colgan, Jeff D. 2018. “Qatar Will Leave OPEC. Here’s What This Means. – The Washington Post.” The Washington Post, December 6, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/12/06/qatar-will-leave-opec-heres-what-this-means/?utm_term=.a9f078cb986b.

Dagher, Sam, Charles Levinson, and Margaret Coker. 2011. “Tiny Kingdom’s Huge Role In Libya Draws Concern.” Wall Street Journal, Eastern Edition; New York, N.Y., October 17, 2011.

HRW. 2018. “Qatar: Year of Crisis Spurred Rights Reforms.” Human Rights Watch. January 18, 2018. https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/01/18/qatar-year-crisis-spurred-rights-reforms.

Jaganathan, Jessica. 2018. “Australia Grabs World’s Biggest LNG Exporter Crown from Qatar in Nov.” Reuters, December 10, 2018. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-australia-qatar-lng-idUSKBN1O907N.

“Near v. State of Minnesota Ex Rel. Olson | Cases | Westlaw.” 1931. 1931. https://1-next-westlaw-com.libproxy.txstate.edu/Document/Icdfd7a709cc211d993e6d35cc61aab4a/View/FullText.html?originationContext=citingReferences&transitionType=Document&contextData=(sc.Search)&docSource=736ab27ee9e245359cdac6e74f42eff4&rank=2&rulebookMode=false.

Newsmax. 2010. “VOA Sidesteps Criticism From Congress | Newsmax.Com.” April 8, 2010. https://www.newsmax.com/kentimmerman/us-economy/2010/04/08/id/355100/.

RSF. 2019. “Qatar : Media Caught in Information Warfare | Reporters without Borders.” RSF. April 18, 2019. https://rsf.org/en/qatar.

Safety & Health Practitioner. 2014. “Qatar Promises to Reform ‘kafala’ System.” Safety & Health Practitioner32 (6): 8–8.

Snoj, Jure. 2017. “Population of Qatar by Nationality in 2017.” Priya DSouza Communications(blog). February 7, 2017. http://priyadsouza.com/population-of-qatar-by-nationality-in-2017/.

This essay was last updated on April 30, 2019.

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