[OPINION] Unfair Officiating: Double Standards in FIFA World Cup Press Coverage of Qatar
It’s time for the international media to call off the witch hunt and call for reforms, writes Alex Silberman, who argues that if Qatar loses the right to host the World Cup in 2022, there will be no winners.
With the 2014 FIFA World Cup kicking off last week in Brazil, international media coverage is now squarely fixed on the relationship between sports and international affairs. Pundits around the world are digging into the World Cup host country’s deep economic, social, and political issues. We should expect intense media scrutiny to rightfully shed light on key human rights issues in Brazil, adding significant pressure for liberal reform. After all, reputable news organisations like The Guardian and The New York Times have been unrelenting in their negative press on Qatar. For example, The Guardian says Qatar’s development in anticipation of the 2022 World Cup has empowered a system of “modern-day slavery”. The New York Times recently described Qatar’s bid for the 2022 tournament as “the most questionable award of a World Cup” in the history of the sport.
This coverage has systematically supported calls to deprive Qatar of the 2022 FIFA World Cup for two reasons: allegations of bribery to secure the bid and the country’s poor standards for migrant workers. Doesn’t it seem reasonable to expect that these same advocates for social change would decry the decision to award the 2014 and 2018 World Cups to Brazil and Russia, respectively, given both countries’ history of worker abuse and FIFA’s long history of corruption?
Turns out, Qatar is in a league of its own.
Call for reforms, not a witch-hunt
The New York Times recently decried FIFA’s influence in Brazil, writing, “The FIFA-driven push to build new stadiums at a breakneck pace has led to the deaths of nine construction workers. FIFA’s demands for security and infrastructure may end up displacing as many as 250,000 poor people, who live in the favelas surrounding Brazil’s urban centers.” That very same article describes international football’s governing organisation in the following terms: “FIFA officials have been accused of financial mismanagement, taking bribes and projecting a level of sexism and homophobia that seems to come from another century”.
Likewise, The Guardian takes Brazil and FIFA to task for civil rights abuses in the build-up to the 2014 World Cup. It recently reported, “By the middle of July, the Brazilian government will have spent more than $12billion on hosting the World Cup, but the costs that this mega-event could bear for the country’s identity – an emerging power with a robust democracy – might be far higher. Basic democratic rights such as freedom of expression, association and assembly that have been hard fought for in the more than 30 years since the dictatorship, are now at risk”.
However, despite country-wide protests in 2013 against aggressive police enforcement, forced migration of the poor from World Cup sites, and widespread poverty, neither The New York Times nor The Guardian published articles advocating for Brazil to lose the right to host the World Cup.
Instead, the international media has focused its attention on attacking Qatar’s World Cup bid. The Guardian published a recent article that opened with the statement: “Football’s embattled world governing body is considering a plan to make a country’s human rights record a factor in awarding future tournaments in the wake of a string of concerns over corruption and the treatment of migrant workers in Qatar”. Shouldn’t the real story discuss how problematic football’s favorite international tournament is in every host country, and not just Qatar?
From August, the focus will shift to Russia, whose record is not so great to begin with. Serious questions were raised about Russia’s severe migrant worker abuses during the construction leading up to the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. Per a February 2013 Human Rights Watch report, migrant workers in Russia have been subjected to “a range of abuses and exploitation, including: failing to pay full wages, excessively delaying payment of wages, and in some cases failing to pay any wages at all; withholding identity documents, such as passports and work permits; failing to provide employment contracts, or failure to respect terms of a contract; and requiring excessive working hours and providing little time off”. This report supplements the widespread documentation of racism, homophobia, and xenophobia in Russia. However, calls for Russia to lose the right to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup based on its poor human rights record (not to mention recent controversial activity in Crimea) seem to be missing from the international press.
Where is the public outcry against Russia’s treatment of its workers? Where is the movement to divest from Russia based on its horrific human rights record? Why does the international press acknowledge the human rights issues in Brazil, Russia, and Qatar, but only call for Qatar to lose the World Cup?
Everyone loses if Qatar loses 2022
The media is fully justified in reporting on allegations of bribery and unethical migration practices in Doha. No one can deny that Qatar must dramatically reform its labour laws in order to cover domestic workers, guarantee freedom of movement to all migrant workers, and step up enforcement of labour laws. As ESPN has reported recently, as many as 4,000 workers from Nepal and India may die as a result of the current working conditions in the country prior to the World Cup in 2022. Moreover, the problems affecting Qatar are not unique to the region: worker abuse is rampant in the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and other labour-importing states. The spotlight of hosting the World Cup in Qatar should provide motivation for the country and region to reform its abusive labour practices. Taking away its right to host the tournament will help no one.
The point is simple: let us not delude ourselves into believing that some World Cup host countries are “deserving” of hosting the international tournament due to holding moral high ground. This is a tournament that at best leads host countries to rapid gentrification and at worst endangers civil rights and encourages widespread labor abuse.
If reputed media houses like The Guardian and The New York Times really want to make a difference in improving human rights in Brazil, Russia, and Qatar, they need to be consistent in informing the public about the true cost of the World Cup. Businesses that profit from international football need to leverage their participation in the tournament against reforms that guarantee basic civil rights, poverty reduction, worker safety, and fair pay. Players need to stand in solidarity with the migrants who literally give their lives to make the World Cup happen. Spectators need to vote with their chequebook and refuse to contribute to the economy of any country that sanctions human rights abuses.
Does Qatar deserve to lose the 2022 FIFA World Cup bid? Based on the disparity in media coverage for the 2014 and 2018 World Cup, the casual observer might support re-opening bids for the 2022 World Cup. However, it seems short-sighted and agenda driven to penalise Qatar on the basis of human rights or corruption without also holding Russia and Brazil to task, not to mention FIFA itself.
About the Author
Alex Silberman works on international social justice issues, particularly focusing on American immigration policies. Originally from Boston, USA, he has lived in Qatar for three years, where he works closely with students to promote community engagement and involvement. When he is not travelling to obscure international destinations or eating cheap Indian food, you can find Alex playing guitar on the Corniche.
[Photo courtesy: Doha Stadium Plus via Flickr]