Concerns over the coverage of the trials related to the fire at the Villaggio shopping mall last year have resurfaced after the editors of popular news website Doha News stated that they had been prevented from reporting on the latest court hearings.
On May 27 2012, a fire broke out in the popular Villaggio shopping centre in Doha, trapping 19 people inside the Gympanzee nursery. The fire resulted in the deaths of 13 children as well as four members of staff from Gympanzee and two firefighters.
Coverage of the fire and subsequent hearings has been extremely limited in Qatar, where newspapers have generally chosen not to report on the legal proceedings. Doha News, which gained recognition for its up-to-the-minute reporting on the fire itself, was the only media outlet providing comprehensive coverage of the hearings.
However, Doha News recently published a story in which they reported that they had begun to face restrictions in what they were able to publish regarding the hearings. In a story on the site, the website’s co-founder and editor, Shabina Khatri explained that having been asked by the presiding judge whether there were any journalists in sitting in on the hearing, she identified herself. Along with another journalist from a local newspaper, Khatri was told that she had to submit a request for permission to publish news from the hearing. The judge added that the journalists were allowed to remain in the court with the stipulation that they would not publish anything about the hearing.
Doha News went on to submit the requested letter, but the judge responded before the trial’s 12th hearing on February 26, stating that they had to prove that they are an official media outlet. As the first digital news outlet in Qatar, the site is trying to find a solution to legally satisfy all parties involved.
“Both surprised and not surprised”
Khatri told DCMF that representatives of Doha News had attended ten previous hearings before being posed the question about her credentials.
“To be honest, I was both surprised and not surprised. During some of the first hearings, which kept getting postponed because all of the defendants did not attend, the lawyer representing the victims' families had told me he would check with the judge to see if I'd be allowed in court. But it never came up during the hearings, and we published stories after all of them. Last month, I presume that someone or more than someone was rubbed the wrong way by our continuous coverage and brought us to the judge's attention.”
“This is the first time we've ever faced a question about being "official." I've spoken at numerous conferences, here and abroad, in my capacity as Doha News co-founder and executive editor.”
Khatri explained that Doha News was welcomed to the official press conference held following the fire: “Though the historic press conference held after the Villaggio trial was under tight security, the government welcomed us to it, and the Ministry of Interior and several other government agencies are always sending us press releases.”
“Frankly, the advent of the internet makes the "official" question a bit moot. We have a huge following and are well-known in the community as a credible, responsible news source. Just because we are not printed on paper or broadcast on television should not disqualify us from covering these hearings. Especially because no one else is, and especially because they are conducted in Arabic, making them inaccessible to large segments of the population, including many of the victims' relatives.”
“We are consulting with advisors to find the best way forward on this. As we said before, we don't want to disrupt or derail this trial, we simply want to inform people about what's going on. In terms of media freedom and transparency in Qatar, the more obstacles and restrictions that are placed on media, the less free it is. It is our understanding that the court has discretion in these matters, and we hope the powers-that-be exercise that power in the right direction.”
DCMF spoke to Martin Weekes, father of Lillie, Jackson and Willsher, the two-year-old triplets who lost their lives in the fire, about the coverage of the hearings which have taken place in recent months.
“Other than Doha News the coverage of the fire, subsequent investigation and court case has been non-existent in Qatar and the local media have consistently declined to report or follow up on any of the information we have sent them,” he said, adding “whilst it’s important not to imply guilt on the defendants the public should know what happened to be satisfied it can't happen again.”
Weekes argued that transparent coverage is important as the outside world continues to look at how Qatar improves safety requirements and treats the families of the victims of the fire.
“I don't believe the people of Qatar have been exposed to the reality of the trial…and most specifically the ongoing refusal of the government to submit their independent report as evidence. This report is meant to be the basis of safety reforms in Qatar yet no one is allowed to read it,” he said.
Weekes also noted a number of international outlets have chosen to report on the hearings, presenting DCMF with a comprehensive list of coverage which has been published outside of Qatar.
Need for transparency in local media
Doha Centre for Media Freedom regrets to hear that journalists and citizen journalists are being prevented from covering the hearings related to the Villaggio fire which caused the deaths of 19 people in May of last year.
Access to information is a basic human right, and this is a case about which the people of Qatar are particularly interested in learning.
Doha News has faced a specific issue related to its lack of professional license due to its operating as a website. However, in the modern age of online media, the distinction between newspaper and online journalists is no longer relevant and as one of the most popular news sources in Qatar, Doha News should be provided journalistic access in line with principles of press freedom.
More widely than this, the centre is disappointed to see that the local media are deciding against providing comprehensive and informative coverage of the Villaggio hearings as they are failing in their responsibility to inform the people of Qatar.