The draft media law which was approved by Qatar’s Shura council in June of this year has been criticised by Human Rights Watch (HRW) who said that provisions penalising criticism of the local government and its relationship with other regimes in the region should be removed.
Doha Centre for Media Freedom has echoed calls for introduction of the new media law to be delayed until its compliance with international standards for protecting freedom of expression can be guaranteed.
While the draft law calls for the abolishment of criminal penalties for journalists, a particular article has drawn criticism for being too broad in its scope. Article 53 prohibits publishing information that would “throw relations between the state and the Arab and friendly states into confusion,” or “abuse the regime or offend the ruling family or cause serious harm to the national or higher interests of the state.”
Journalists who break this law could face fines of up to QR1 million.
Qatar’s penal code already contains an article which can lead to five-year jail sentences for criticising the Emir. The new media law would strengthen this law, and further restrict freedom of expression, argues the report.
Deputy Middle East director of HRW, Joe Stork said: “Qatar’s commitment to freedom of expression is only as good as its laws, which in this case do not meet the international standards it professes to support. Instead of supporting press freedom, this draft media law is a commitment to censorship.”
Self-censorship is widely practiced among Qatar’s local journalists, and while Al Jazeera is widely viewed as a pillar of free speech in the Arab world, the reality for the local press is that there are many issues they are not allowed to write about. This has led to them receiving criticism for turning a blind eye to various stories and a rise in popularity of citizen journalism.
Rights organisations have also highlighted the case of the poet Mohamed Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, who has been imprisoned since November 2011. The authorities have failed to clarify the exact details of his charges, which relate to “inciting the overthrow of the ruling regime,” a charge which carries the death penalty under article 130 of the country’s penal code, and “insulting the Emir.”
“If Qatar is serious about providing regional leadership on media freedom it should remove the problematic provisions from its draft media law and drop all charges against Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami that solely relate to his exercise of free speech,” Stork added
Doha Centre for Media Freedom director, Jan Keulen made the following statement on the draft law:
“We are happy that the proposed Media Law has not yet come into force and that there is still time to revise it. As far as we have seen the draft law we have reason to believe that there is a marked progress compared to the old media law of 1979, but that it is not 100% up to international standards.
In general it can be said that the legal environment in which a media outlet operates is a crucial factor in its success. Rules and regulations can hinder or enable press freedom and the growth and flourishing of media. If the legal framework allows media to fulfill their function as watchdog without fear of legal sanction, this will contribute to the quality of (investigative) journalism.
On first sight the proposed draft law contains a number of restrictions on the development of free and independent media, which seem in contradiction with Qatar’s defence of freedoms and progress especially since the beginning of the Arab spring, and aspirations in the field of development and becoming an information society.
It has to be remembered that the right to free expression is a fundamental human right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 by the UN General Assembly. In Article 19 it says: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas trough any media and regardless of frontiers.
There is a family of universal communication-related rights consisting of freedom of information, freedom of expression and media freedom which are elaborated and enacted through principles and standards based on international co-operation. A new media law like the one in Qatar should be judged against the backdrop of these international principles and standards.
We are particularly concerned about the lack of explicit guarantees or mechanisms to promote pluralism and diversity of the Qatari media; two internationally recognised ingredients of free media. There are also questions about the proposed system of licensing private media outlets (including news websites) and registering journalists. Furthermore it is disputable if ethical journalistic issues should and can be regulated by law.
Qatar has been in the front line worldwide regarding the defense of safety of journalists and freedom of the media. Al Jazeera Channel and the Doha Centre for Media Freedom bear witness to this. The country has some excellent schools of journalism and training institutes, like Northwestern University in Qatar, Qatar University and al Jazeera Training and Development Centre. We hope Qatar will eventually adopt a legal framework, which will enable the local media to take up its important role to fully inform the citizens and contribute to the public good.”