Strict media laws, no public data, sources at risk: what it’s like to be a journalist in Qatar

As the Fifa World Cup kicks off, experts assess the state of press freedom and explain what foreign reporters can expect
A fan takes a photograph of a countdown clock to the start of the World Cup. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

A fan takes a photograph of a countdown clock to the start of the World Cup. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

18th November 2022

As Qatar’s Fifa World Cup 2022 kicks off, a storm of controversy threatens to overshadow the tournament. The backlash has been greater than when recent sport events were hosted by other authoritarian regimes like China and Russia. Several French cities are not going to set up public ‘fan zones’ due to human rights and environmental concerns. A national Italian newspaper, Il Fatto Quotidiano, announced it will not publish a single piece about the tournament (Italy did not qualify, but the paper’s statement says it would have made the same decision even if it had.)

Chief among the human rights concerns cited by those who criticise Qatar is the condition of the migrant workers who built the stadiums, and on whom the country relies in other industries as well. The impact on Qatari women of the male guardianship law and the treatment of LGBTQ+ people are also discussed. Something mentioned less often is press freedom. In the 2022 World Press Freedom Index, Qatar ranks at 119 out of 180 countries, down from its high of 74 in 2008.

In a country where no journalists have died this year and none are currently in prison but where media laws are strict and self-censorship is rampant, what is it like to be a journalist? And what should international reporters be aware of as they land in Qatar to cover the World Cup?

The media environment

News publications in Qatar are generally homogenous and toe the government line. An exception is independent news blog Doha News, which frequently addresses controversial topics in the country, including the conditions of migrant workers. Al Jazeera, the international TV network based in Qatar, tends not to report on internal issues, instead directing its focus overseas.

Some reporting by international outlets has been criticised as misleading and not well-informed. “You need to be here. Reporting from far away using sources that can give you anecdotal evidence when you can't go see places or talk to people is always going to be a little risky. And of course, some of the reporting that has been done is just plain lazy,” says Craig LaMay, Director of the Journalism and Strategic Communication Program at Northwestern University in Qatar. 

In a recent piece for Foreign Policy, LaMay writes that this kind of reporting has created a narrative about Qatar which “often has grains of truth to it but just as often is an uninformed caricature or is exaggerated.” However, he says, it’s the government’s attempts to control information and censor independent journalism that is at the root of this problem. 

A recent high-profile press freedom case in the country is that of Malcolm Bidali, a Kenyan national who anonymously wrote a blog documenting the conditions faced by migrant workers in the country while working in Qatar as a security guard. Bidali was eventually identified as the author, arrested and imprisoned for almost a month in May 2021. After a criminal order was handed down stating he had published ‘false news with the intent of endangering (...) the state’ under Qatar’s 2014 cybercrime law, Bidali paid a fine and was allowed to leave the country.

“This shows the serious risks faced by independent journalists, bloggers or international journalists who don't have the backing of a major international media outlet,” says Justin Shilad, Senior Researcher at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). “We haven't seen many examples in recent years of someone being detained for the length of time that Bidali was. The fact that we don't see arrests so often ironically points to the fact that this climate of censorship works really well.”

Hostile media laws

Qatar’s harsh media laws are one of the obstacles facing journalists in the country. They create vaguely-worded restrictions on the kind of content that publications are allowed to publish, as well as strict rules regarding the registering of news organisations. 

“All media laws everywhere have problems with vagueness, but those vague provisions have been interpreted in court proceedings, and journalists can read them and know where the boundaries are. There are no such court proceedings to read here. If you study media law here, there are no cases for students to read,” LaMay told me. Even the outside counsel LaMay’s university works with can’t refer to any cases, but just “a handful of anecdotes”. 

As a journalism teacher, LaMay is aware of the impact of Qatar’s media laws. “Over the years, I've had students who have been arrested. The last time I remember, it was actually for a tweet,” he says. On a day-to-day basis, however, the biggest risk is when his students go out for practical reporting exercises.

Northwestern’s Qatar campus is in Education City, a university complex within Doha which also hosts other US, UK and French university campuses built with funding from the Qatar Foundation. “When my students go out to report within Education City, they carry a letter with my signature they're supposed to show to security guards and police. Even with that letter, they are often turned away or threatened with detention when they try to photograph or report. If they were to leave the secure grounds of Education City, that letter would be all but worthless to them,” LaMay explained.

One of the most common risks when doing journalistic work in Qatar is to be accused of trespassing. This is what Halvor Ekeland and Lokman Ghorbani of Norwegian state broadcaster NRK were accused of when they were arrested by officers of Qatar’s Criminal Investigations Department in November 2021. The journalists were held for over 30 hours before being released without charge. They deny they were filming without permission. 

“Everywhere I've ever worked, trespassing is not okay to get a story,” LaMay says. “But also everywhere I've worked there's a pretty clear line between public and private property. That line is awfully vague here. And there are no rights to film or interview on public property either. If you look at Education City, for example, Northwestern is a private institution, but the Qatar Foundation owns our building. Is it public or private property? I have no idea. And as a rule of thumb everywhere, the security guards and police you meet don't think in those distinctions anyway. Their first instinct is to stop you from reporting,” 

Shilad echoed this point, saying that journalists have been stopped and in some cases detained despite having filming permits. “It seems like a lot of these rules are also subject to interpretation on the ground,” he says.

A few days before the opening match, Rasmus Tantholdt, a reporter for TV 2 Denmark, was forced off air by security staff. Tantholdt said that an officer threatened to break his camera and that he was filming in a public place with the correct accreditation. The World Cup organisers have since apologised.

These obstacles don’t mean good reporting is impossible, LaMay added, but it does require initiative and creativity. “The government is not eager to arrest and harass journalists. It's just that they make it so difficult to report,” LaMay says.

How to protect sources

Another issue to keep in mind is protecting sources, which may mean keeping their identity anonymous if they’re in a vulnerable position. “Ordinarily, of course, you would want to identify people, but migrant workers are subjected to reprisals, detention and worse,” LaMay says. “The most difficult things I face are finding sources who are willing to talk and finding official information,” says an international correspondent based in Qatar who asked to remain anonymous.

“Some elements in the Qatar government are not used to sharing [information] with journalists. They're not used to being transparent. They're not very comprehensive at providing information to journalists in the level of detail or specificity that we often need to completely report our stories,” this journalist says. 

The biggest challenge when covering Qatar is finding some of the most basic pieces of information that in other places journalists just take for granted, they say. There is also a lack of detail in press conferences. “Even basic details like who's going to be playing in concerts related to the World Cup has not been really kind of accessible and forthcoming,” the journalist says. 

Reporting in Qatar “is definitely not a straightforward process, and it takes a long time,” this journalist says. “It's very important to make sure that the reporting is absolutely 100% airtight, which means checking, double-checking, triple-checking, quadruple-checking. You multiple-source everything because there are other news organisations out there that have been writing about Qatar that I don't think do that level of due diligence in their reporting, and then they get burned for it. And so, part of what I'm trying to do here is to do really stringent, reasonable, responsible, factual journalism from Qatar.” 

Living in Qatar helps this journalist make sure their stories are well-informed and accurate, as they are very familiar with the context, but there is also the physical proximity of living in a small country. 

“Being really close to sources physically here, in the same country, means that I know I'm going to be scrutinised by them after something is published. And it's actually kind of a healthy thing to be thinking about when I'm doing the reporting because it just gives me that extra push to triple-check something because I'm probably going to run into the person whose company I'm writing about, and they're gonna ask me about it,” the journalist says.

Covering the World Cup

Human rights advocacy groups like Reporters Without Borders (RSF) are warning that Qatar is imposing limits to freedom of the press for journalists jetting in to cover the tournament. 

“The Qatari authorities are misusing the accreditation system for journalists in order to ban them from covering certain subjects,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said recently. “By requiring that the media agree to abide by a number of conditions, some of which are vague, ambiguous, and open to arbitrary interpretation, Qatar is clearly seeking to discourage, if not prevent, the foreign media from talking about anything other than football.”

Attempting to push at the boundaries around reporting set by the Qatari government is not going to get the results journalists want, the reporter I spoke to said. The consequences of that would likely only be the journalists getting arrested and themselves becoming the story. 

“You can do a lot of reporting within the boundaries the government has set,” the journalist says. “You should think about your sources and how you can put them at risk and in situations they're not necessarily equipped to deal with. Something that people who show up here having never been here before don't think enough about is what kind of risk are you putting your sources at by talking to them.”

For more nuanced reporting on issues around the World Cup, LaMay advises looking at how Western countries and companies are also complicit in human rights abuses, and to think critically about the role and motivations of all parties involved, including advocacy groups. He also suggests that journalists read academic literature on human rights and sports, and that newsrooms shift their attitude around sports desks, traditionally siloed and separate from other sections. 

“There's an opportunity here for much better quality reporting that treats sports as real news,” LaMay says.

“I would also just urge reporters to travel in groups and have a plan,” LaMay says. “Don't ever mouth off to a policeman. Doing that here is actually a crime. If you're detained by the police, film it, be calm, professional and polite, and don't touch anybody. Just be on your best behaviour while you do the rigorous reporting you came here to do.”

For Shilad, the World Cup is an opportunity for the international community to push for change within Qatar. “That has been a big missed opportunity so far on behalf of the international community,” he says. “We should push for a real repeal to these repressive anti-press freedom laws, to push for a more open and permissive environment for press freedom.”

Shilad stresses that the coverage of the situation within the country should persist after the tournament is over. “I think that being able to cover it responsibly and openly, but more importantly, continuously, after the last whistle is blown, is really, really vital for journalists,” he says. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has put together a safety advisory for journalists and media workers travelling to Qatar for the World Cup.