Of all the legacies one might hope for from the 2022 World Cup, one would be media liberalization in Qatar. The country has a 52-year-old media law whose potentially limitless prohibitions on speech the government disfavors, its licensing requirements for publications, and its criminal provisions for almost any offense, including libel, are among the reasons for the country’s low standing in all three of the world’s leading press freedom indices. In the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, for example, Qatar ranks at 129 out of 180, down from its high of 74 in 2003. The country’s most precipitous fall in the Index came in 2016 after it blocked the independent Doha News, ostensibly for not having a publication license. Some of this history was discussed recently in a CIRS interview with David Harding, the international editor of the Independent in London and former Agence France Presse bureau chief in Doha.
At one level, a new media law is not much to ask. The cabinet has drafted a revised law three times in the last eleven years and twice in the past three. None has been signed into law by the emir.
But perhaps the easiest case to make for a new media law is that it could help to secure another World Cup legacy about which Qatar, FIFA, and the rest of the world care very much: reform of the country’s labor system. Since Qatar won its bid in 2010, no criticism of the country has been more vociferous or justified than that directed at its exploitation of expatriate workers, mostly from Africa and South Asia, who comprise nearly 90 percent of the country’s population. In the months after the blockade crisis began in June 2017, however, the emir issued a new law to protect domestic workers, such as drivers, maids, and nannies, and, in 2018, the country invited the International Labor Organization to establish a field office in Doha. Since then, Qatar has abolished exit permits for virtually all foreign workers, and, last summer, established a minimum wage and gave workers significantly greater freedom to change jobs.
These are important and praiseworthy reforms, but working against them are two factors that would benefit from scrutiny by a more independent press. The first, not surprisingly, is that many employers do not like the new rules and will attempt to avoid compliance with them. The second is that the Gulf states have a history of announcing liberalization measures that come to nothing. So while the local newspapers dutifully print the government’s press releases on the new labor laws, there is no independent reporting about them. One result is that a great deal of misinformation circulates among workers themselves on social media, complicating the government’s efforts to effectively implement its policies.
Ordinarily, a news organization covering compliance with the new laws would seek to examine records held by the responsible ministry, but there is no public records requirement in Qatar (or in any Gulf state but Yemen), and government officials are not accustomed to answering tough questions from local reporters. A significantly reformed media law would not change Qatar’s domestic journalism practice overnight, and the existing one is not the only reason for the timidity of the local press. But media liberalization is not an end in itself either. Rather, it is key to ensuring other social legacies of the tournament to which Qatar and FIFA have committed.
Article by Craig L. LaMay is a professor at Northwestern University in Chicago, currently in residence at the university’s campus in Qatar.
Craig L. LaMay is a professor at Northwestern University in Chicago, currently in residence at the university’s campus in Qatar, where he has served as dean and director of the journalism program. He teaches media law and journalism ethics.
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