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JustHere | December 8, 2016

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Social media activism in Qatar: Separating the wheat from the chaff, in a hashtag-obsessed generation

Social media activism in Qatar: Separating the wheat from the chaff, in a hashtag-obsessed generation
Meghna Dey

If you have lived in Qatar long enough you will know that the most controversial debates happen behind closed doors. Very rarely do people voice their displeasures on a public platform owing to the nature of laws and regulations, lack of clarity on what’s allowed, and what would draw the ire of authorities.

Social media has given a platform for people to reach out to authorities and decision-makers; and to reach large audiences. Cyber activism is probably seen as a safer bet as well, though that perception might not be entirely well-founded.

However, with opinions flying thick and fast, separating real issues and voices of reason from the merely loud ones could be a challenge. Is redress through hashtags the new trend? Or is it the digital equivalent to molehills and mountains?

Serious issues can easily be buried in emotional outbursts and counter arguments by trolls.

JustHere looks at some of the recent issues that have been in the limelight, and spoke to an activist micro-blogger.

Local issues

If you are an active Facebook or Twitter consumer, you may have come across Aisha Al Thani’s petition to bring down Adel Abdessemed’s animal cruelty art at Mathaf. Aisha’s report on Avaaz.org caught the attention of many. She has more than 10,000 signatures and her petition is directed to Qatar Museums Authority (QMA) Chairperson, HE Sheikha Mayassa bint Hamad bint Khalifa Al Thani. On the Facebook page of the petition Aisha wrote that Mathaf had not acknowledged her request. “I contacted the decision makers at Mathaf by email and by phone but they refused to give a response or even acknowledge that there is a problem. My move now, is to reach out to QMA,” she said.

Some petitions have received quicker responses, and persistent activists receive the quickest response it seems.

Esraa Al Muftah, a member of Qatar Youth Opposed to Normalisation (QAYON), has been involved in raising awareness among the Qatari community about the campaign of boycotts, divestment, and sanction (BDS) against Israel through QAYON’s blog and social media.

“At the beginning there was very little reaction or response to the blog and the actions it was calling for by the Qatari community. However, the past two years things have changed. People are more likely to engage in spreading messages and are more confident in communicating with government officials when they feel there is a need to do so. Similarly, the government has become more responsive to these calls and messages, although most of the times it does not acknowledge that,” she says.

In October this year, the group sent out a letter to the Qatar Swimming Authority asking them to remove the Israel flag – which was a participating country – during the two-day FINA World Cup series leg. Further, it also requested the committee to suspend Israeli participation in future events. After the protests gained momentum online, the Israeli flag was removed.

“This (awareness of real issues) becomes a serious problem in the absence of an alternative discourse…”

What’s the legal red line?

At the moment, the National Human Rights Committee (NHRC) does not have any provisions for online social activism and digital petitions. Also, Qatar has not released the new media law yet, which is assumed to have sections on regulating online media and social activism.

“I think online social activism is a good starting point in Qatar given the restrictions that impede the formation of a civil society. However, I think when overused, without translating in to real action, it becomes counterproductive; people are simply venting and not doing anything on the ground,” Esraa says.

Serious issues can easily be buried in emotional outbursts and counter arguments by trolls.

Esraa is not quite sure on what basis some debates attract the interest of authorities. “Sometimes I feel it is used by certain influential figures on social media to play on populist sentiments. I am not saying these people should be censored or held accountable, instead the readers need to be more aware and responsible with the information they read and share. This becomes a serious problem in the absence of an alternative discourse… which, as I said earlier, is being limited due to the absence of real social organisations working on the ground.”

Copyright © 2013 JustHere Qatar. Reproduction of material from any JustHere Qatar pages without written permission is strictly prohibited.

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