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In common with other Gulf countries, the national press is in the strong grip of self-censorship and as in the United Arab Emirates, most newspaper staff are foreigners. And since their residency rights are closely linked to observing the ‘red lines’ imposed by the government, they have all the more reason to censor themselves to avoid expulsion from the country.
Journalists covering financial issues have to grapple with serious obstacles to covering economic news, fearing being accused of making an attack on the image of Qatar, which is seeking to attract foreign investment. Since news is particularly hard to access in this field, they often limit themselves to relaying official statements.
Paradoxically, the same government has defended the editorial freedom of al-Jazeera, often to the detriment of its diplomatic relations with Arab countries such as Tunisia. This contradiction provides a glaring example of the gap between the courageous tone of al-Jazeera journalists on international news and the restraint, even self-censorship, shown by the channel’s journalists and those of other national media in relation to Qatari issues.
The law governing the written press – the publications law – dates back to 1979, and has never been reformed, despite a dramatic transformation of the media landscape. Many things are forbidden under this law. Further, the wording of the law allows a lot of room for interpretation, giving the authorities significant prerogatives. The office of the prime minister can at any time widen the list of what is forbidden, simply by notifying the media. Any breach of the rules can lead to a publication being banned without any legal remedy and the imprisonment of a journalist for “denigration” or “defamation”.
The authorities also control distribution of foreign media in the country, censoring any content deemed to be contrary to the country’s political, religious and moral values. The Internet also comes under scrutiny from the authorities who filter any news critical of Qatar.
Journalists are even more powerless in the face of these difficulties, since because of the total absence of trade union rights there is no organisation in Qatar able to defend them against their employers or the authorities.
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