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JustHere | February 19, 2018

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Why does journalism in Qatar look more like PR?

Why does journalism in Qatar look more like PR?

Journalists and the print media have sometimes been on the receiving end of scathing criticism. But not all the criticism is well-founded or justified. JustHere spoke to some senior reporters and editors to understand the constraints they have to work under.

• In the late 1990s, two workers were crushed to death in the construction of City Center. A journalist who covered the incident was taken to court and threatened by several businesses that had vested interests in the project.
• In 2005, a leading monthly magazine in Qatar did a story on public transport in Qatar with a cover headline that read ‘Waiting for a lift’. It was considered too strong, so the owner of the publication stopped the press and insisted on it being changed.
• A few years ago, a journalist from Qatar’s leading English daily was held for an entire day in police custody. It was Ramadan. Someone who took offence at a report he filed had reported him to the police. However, the newspaper he worked for refused to send him any help at the police station. The journalist, fresh off the boat, spoke no Arabic, and had to depend on his colleagues to get him out.

Andrea Busfield, who served as Deputy Editor of the Gulf Times in 2008, says: “I have worked in the newspaper industry for more than 15 years – for local and national newspapers in the UK, for NATO in Afghanistan and for the Gulf Times in Qatar – and I have to say, I found Qatar to be the most challenging in terms of retaining any sort of journalistic integrity… the constraints imposed on journalists are very real, and nothing I had come across before, not even in Afghanistan, compares.”

“Every journalist who comes here wants to do their best, and then you realise that you are put in shackles almost immediately,” says a senior reporter* with another local daily. “I came here after covering the crime beat in one of the leading cities of the world, and after 5-6 years of banging my head on the wall, I gave up. Every time I ask the Doha Centre for Media Freedom what protection we’d receive, they evade the question. They are more concerned about journalists in Syria and Iraq.”

I found Qatar to be the most challenging in terms of retaining any sort of journalistic integrity…

The issue is not even about jailing journalists, because that doesn’t happen much. It’s about not being allowed to function. “You can work as much as you wish on stories, but at the end of the day, the will of the editor or, worse still, the advertising manager will prevail. Forget social or political issues; we are not even allowed to comment on customer service in the leading banks or telecom providers in Qatar. They’d pull the advertisements if we did,” he says.

It’s not just the advertisers. The boards of these newspapers resemble a Who’s Who of the business community. Which means that every single one of those businesses receives immunity from adverse comment in the press.

“There is no journalism, just glorified PR in 99.9% of cases,” says a journalist from a competing English daily who has worked here for over a decade. While criticism of journalists and the media in Qatar may be justified, unless you are in the field you won’t understand the restrictions within which they work, he adds. “Of course there is self-censorship. I have been here for over a dozen years, and I know what can be printed and what can’t.” It’s a vicious circle, he agrees. It starts with being stopped from doing things, and progresses eventually to the point of not even trying.

Busfield adds: “As many reporters working for Qatar newspapers are also non-nationals, there is a very real fear of deportation. Therefore, journalists in Qatar tend to self-censor rather than put themselves in the firing line. And who can blame them? The wages are minimal for most. Therefore, there is little to be gained from filing court or crime stories, which would make up the bulk of most national newspapers. Qatar’s image has been sanitised.”

Busfield concludes that journalism in Qatar is not a vocation, but a means to an end. “It comes down to money, like most other businesses in the region. Western journalists grow fat on their inflated salaries, and other reporters – mostly from India – earn enough to get by better than they would do at home.”

One of the methods of State control involves a criminal charge of ‘bringing Qatar into disrepute’, says the ex-Deputy Editor of the Gulf Times, “which has been interpreted and grossly abused on occasion to keep reporters and newspapers in line. During the year I worked in Qatar (2008) I witnessed this very real threat to a reporter’s liberty being invoked. I won’t go into details of the case out of respect and consideration for the reporter involved, but the charge was wholly unfair and designed to intimidate not only the reporter but also the editorial executive. This is a real shame, and the end result is a shackled press that churns out world news plucked from the wires, with a smattering of local advertorials and community announcements.”

…contd on Page 2

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  1. Arvind Nair

    Apparently, nothing has changed over the years. There was speculation that I was “blacklisted” because I quoted certain department heads for my stories, rather than the head of PR at the Ministry of Interior.

  2. MT @florentdsouza Why does #journalism in #Qatar look more like PR? via @JustHereQ cc @omarc @vanish_forever

  3. Why does journalism in Qatar look more like PR? – A brilliant article by @vanish_forever

  4. ‘Why does journalism in #Qatar look more like PR?’ – the most extreme example of a Gulf-wide problem

  5. Jassim Al-Romaihi

    Great piece. Thanks for sharing.

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