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Monday, March 14, 2011     GET REAL

Qatar newspaper challenges Al Jazeera, government restraints on press freedom

ABU DHABI — Qatar has acknowledged that its media was dysfunctional.


A leading Qatari newspaper reported on a debate within the emirate's media community regarding freedom. The Doha-based Peninsula asserted that journalists were prevented from accessing official information as well as feared prosecution for investigative reporting.

"What essentially ails the Qatari media — English and Arabic-language newspapers — is the absence of a comprehensive law that specifies its role in a clear-cut way and seeks to protect it against the people and interests opposed to free expression or those who cannot appreciate criticism even if it is healthy and impersonal," Peninsula said.

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In an unusually frank editorial on March 6, the newspaper questioned why Qatar's media reported on unrest throughout the Arab world with the exception of their own country. The editorial also wondered about the silence of Qatar's A-Jazeera satellite channel on domestic issues.

"A-Jazeera is also accused of practicing double standards," the editorial said. "A Web site which sometime ago talked of some appointment in the channel's administration had to be closed down and its owners were taken to court."

The editorial, published amid efforts to pass a press freedom bill, said the Internet was replacing the conventional media as a forum for political debate. Peninsula said newspapers and the electronic media have been questioned over their reluctance to report on official corruption.

"The problem with local journalists, insiders would tell, is that they suffer due to a severe lack of information flow," Peninsula said. "Government officials are hard to access and open sources virtually non-existent, so scribes are often forced to base their stories on half-truths in the absence of details."

The editorial said that Kuwait has been the only country in the Gulf where the local media reported on corruption. In contrast, Qatar's media contained little such coverage, even though such cases could be heard in the justice system.

"The culture in the country [Qatar] is such that people tend to take criticism as personal even if it is objective and directed at institutions and procedures," the editorial said. "Then, there is the conflict of interest. The owner of a business, including the media, or the head of an institution is obviously an influential person so the entity cannot be criticized."

Journalists have also demanded freedom of expression in other GCC states. In the United Arab Emirates, the state-owned National Media Council has come under criticism for failure to guarantee freedom of the press.

Peninsula said government institutions and companies in Qatar have become sacred cows and immune to criticism. The editorial quoted an unidentified senior journalist as saying that the only way this could change was through guarantees from leaders of the emirate.

"What is needed is a change in the mindset," the journalist said. "When you begin accepting healthy criticism as a way of progress and evolution, the problem of media freedom would be resolved automatically."

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