Is the One-Eyed King among the blind? – Qatar and the Media – Script (en)

Greta Haberer, Daniela Sepehri Fard & Christian Mayer

Qatar. Next to the large and globally influential Saudi Arabia, this Arab Gulf state on the east coast of the Arabian Peninsula might seem rather small and insignificant, with a surface area of 12,000 square kilometers. Gaining independence from the United Kingdom in 1971, Qatar is ruled by an absolute hereditary monarchy today. The head of state is Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Sharia is the main base of the legal system.

With a gross domestic product of more than $90,000 per person in 2014, Qatar is the materially richest country in the world. Most residents have an education, and from the year 2009 through 2013, the literacy rate was around 96.7%. The first impression of Qatar is of a progressive country—but how does it appear upon closer look? Let’s consider the media, especially social media, which has become increasingly important to Qataris in recent years. In Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index, Qatar ranked only 128th of 180 countries in 2019. Why?

More than 85% of Qatari residents have an Internet connection. Statistically, every person owns one and a half mobile phones. However, access to the Internet and social networks still is not as easy as one might expect.

Every Qatari resident has the right to directly or indirectly address the public authorities. Freedom of speech and scientific research of the press, print, and journalism are respected and guaranteed. At least as stated by articles 46, 47, and 48 of the constitution adopted in 2004.

In 1996, Qatar became the first Arab state to abolish its Ministry of Information. On paper, this meant ending direct censorship—a progressive step in the Arab media landscape. However, the 1979 media law still hasn’t been updated despite the government’s promises. In theory, this law should guarantee the freedom of media. In practice, however, it looks very different. There are severe punishments and penalties for defamation, economic damages, insults to the king’s majesty, and attacks on public morals. What public morals are aren’t defined in detail.

More crucial to the use of the Internet is the cyber-crime law passed in 2014 by the emir of Qatar. This law is intended to support the media law and control the distribution of news on social networks, so no publications can undermine social norms and common order. Examples of punishable crimes in social media include pornographic displays, comments critical of religion, and controversial coverage of Qatar’s domestic and foreign policy.

We want to know how the cyber-crime law affects Qataris’ work on social media. For that, we talk to Mahmoud M. Galander, associate professor in the Department of Mass Communication at Qatar University.

Why was the cyber-crime law passed originally?

Mahmoud M. Galander, professor in the Department of Mass Communication: 

“Like other countries, Qatar is not immune to cyber-attacks from intended or unintended sources. The purpose of the Qatari cyber law is to protect the community against crimes that use the internet, especially crimes that have to do with different types of financial fraud like money laundering and cards theft. Also the country sought to protect its citizens against cyber-crimes against individuals, like hacking, bullying, identity theft and hate. 

I must also mention here that, given the strategic position of Qatar as a rich Gulf country, it has experienced different attempts to hurt its economy through different means, including the cyberspace. Given such attempts, Qatar has established a “Cyber Emergency Response” unit to deal with fraudulent attempts to hurt individuals or businesses.

 

Also recent political developments in the Gulf area has brought some enmity between certain countries and Qatar, a development which resulted in one of the most intriguing cases of what I call “cyber-politics”, when Qatar’s official news agency was hacked, and untrue statements were attributed to the Emir of the country and placed in the news agency’s website. Then that information was used as a cause to sever political ties with Qatar by four Arab countries who also placed, and are still placing, economic siege against the country.”   

How does it affect journalists?

Mahmoud M. Galander, professor in the Department of Mass Communication:

 “I think the cyber-crime law has helped Qatar control the situation vis-a-vis the financial aspects. The journalists in Qatar are aware of the fact that cyberspace is full of unverified and fake news. As such, much effort is made to verify and sometimes triangulate sources. I have talked to several of my previous students in news desks who told me that they are alerted against fake news that increased lately as a result of the political indifferences that permeate in the region. Many of the crimes reported in Qatar are, however, of “social nature”, as they have to do with bullying and or libel and, according to a report published by “Al-Arab” newspaper, 90% of such crimes were solved, and the perpetrators were dealt with. According to the interview with a high ranking official of the ministry of interior, few economic crimes using the cyberspace were committed in Qatar, these included credit and debit card fraud, and foreign and local currency laundering.”

What has changed over the years?

Mahmoud M. Galander, professor in the Department of Mass Communication: 

“I think the major change is the fact that technology has improved the chances for both cybercrimes and the combatting of such crimes. Today the software for identifying and verifying online personalities and activities is becoming the target for both criminals and combatants of the crimes.”

You have published your work in other countries such as Sudan and Western nations. What differences are there in the publishing process?

Mahmoud M. Galander, professor in the Department of Mass Communication: 

“The situation is always dependent on the amount of press freedom available in the place where the work is. If we take Cybercrime for example, one can easily depict that an environment of less freedoms is more prone to tolerate such crimes, whereas a free society will always have several checks and controls that will help reduce such crimes. Watchdog journalism has proven to be of great help in such a situation.”

References:

El-Nawawy, Mohammed / Iskandar, Adel (2002): Al-Jazeera: How the Free Arab News Network Scooped the World and Changed the Middle East. Cambridge, MA: Westview Press.

Al-Mikhlafy, Abdo Jamil (2006): Al-Jazeera: ein regionaler Spieler und globaler Herausforderer. Eine Studie über ein arabisches Medium, das Geschichte gemacht hat. Marburg: Schüren.

Da Lage, Oliver (2005): The Politics of Al Jazeera or the Diplomacy of Doha. In: Zayani, Mohamed (ed.): The Al Jazeera Phenomenon. Boulder: Paradigm, pp. 49-65.

El Richani, Sarah (2015): Qatar: Ein immer noch loyalistisches Mediensystem In: Richter, Carola/ El Difraoui, Asiem (eds.): Arabische Medien. UVK: Konstanz, pp. 289-298.

Kirat, Mohamed (2016): A profile of journalists in Qatar: traits, attitudes and values. The Journal of International Communication 22(2), 171-187, DOI:10.1080/13216597.2016.1175367.

Powers, Shawn/ Gilboa, Eytan (2007): The Public Diplomacy of Al Jazeera. In: Seib, Philip (ed.): New Media and the new Middle East. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 53-80.

Samuel-Azran, Tal (2013): Al-Jazeera, Qatar and New Tactics in State-Sponsored Media Diplomacy. In: American Behavioral Scientist 57(9), 1293-1311.

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