In this exclusive two-part series, The Chron investigates media freedom and reporting conditions in the rapidly-developing country of Qatar, where Northwestern’s first international campus is located.
But beneath its ritzy surface, the Gulf state still has serious issues with freedom of expression which are often overlooked by the international media. Read on!
Fueled by billions of dollars from its vast natural gas reserves, Qatar is positioning itself as a new center of global commerce, media, and culture.
The country’s push for progress includes massive spending on education. Its hallmark project is “Education City,” a separate zone in the capital of Doha which has eight foreign institutions of higher learning – all expenses paid by the government-funded Qatar Foundation.
One of those foreign institutions is Northwestern in Qatar, or NU-Q. Established in 2008, it is Northwestern’s first campus located outside the United States, and teaches journalism and communications.
But despite huge economic and demographic change over the last few decades, Qatar remains an absolute monarchy with a very different standard on freedom of expression than the United States.
And last November, an event brought worldwide attention to the Gulf state’s track record on the matter.
Imprisoning ‘The Wolf’
On the 29th of November 2012, the Qatari poet Muhammad al-Ajami “Ibn al-Dheeb,” or “Son of the Wolf,” was sentenced to life in prison for insulting the Emir of Qatar in a poem. As the trial was held in secret, the exact basis for the charges is unknown. On February 25th, 2013, al-Ajami’s sentence was reduced to 15 years on appeal.
While al-Ajami’s sentencing to life imprisonment in November was widely reported throughout the world, it was ignored by most of Qatar’s media.
“That story hasn’t been covered in any of the seven local papers, although it’s talked about heavily on social media,” says Omar Chatriwala, a former journalism lecturer at NU-Q and one of the editors of local blog and news site Doha News.
“It’s not that there’s a lack of interest. My presumption is that they don’t want to cover it because it’s a sensitive issue and they don’t want to get into trouble,” says Chatriwala.
Yet Doha News, which is online-only, covered al-Ajami’s sentencing extensively and without any government interference.
“The fact that we have not been censored in any way, shape, or form is a very positive development,” says Chatriwala.
While much of Qatar’s print media is censored both officially and through self-censorship, online media like Doha News is currently unregulated by the government.
But a draft media law may change this. If implemented, it would bring online news under the same regulations as newspapers.
“I think the more regulation they try to impose the greater the likelihood that someone will actually call you up and say ‘Do this, don’t do that,’” says Chatriwala.
Despite incidents of censorship, Qatar publicly promotes itself as a center for press freedom in the Gulf.
It established the Doha Centre for Media Freedom in 2007, an organization meant to promote freedom of expression and provide assistance to journalists in need of help as a result of their reporting.
It took the DCMF eleven days to mention al-Ajami’s sentencing. At a conference in Doha, the DCMF’s director Jan Keulen said: “We are highly concerned about this case and the effects it may have on freedom of expression and hence media freedom in this country.”
Qatar also ensures that Education City is a free speech zone. Students and faculty can express themselves freely, and even the country’s normally censored internet is unblocked within Education City’s confines.
Justin D. Martin, an assistant professor at NU-Q, says he is completely free to discuss controversial topics such as al-Ajami’s imprisonment in his classes.
“In class, I don’t curb any of my criticisms of government abridgement of speech, whether it’s the US in arresting journalists in the Occupy protests, Great Britain clamping down on supposedly offensive messages on Twitter, or the Qatari government arresting a poet,” says Martin.
“We talk about those things as bluntly as I would in Evanston, in Syracuse, at Chapel Hill, or anywhere else.”
Yet when Martin brought up al-Ajami’s life sentence in class, not all his students had heard the news.
“Some of my students weren’t aware of his imprisonment because Al Jazeera didn’t cover it and other local media organizations did not mention it,” he says.
Al Jazeera, the vast Middle Eastern news network funded by the Qatari government, did not immediately report on al-Ajami’s sentence. It only “put a few hundred words buried in the website, but they never mentioned it on air,” according to Martin, who also personally contacted the head of Al Jazeera English about the matter.
Some of the NU-Q students who do know of the poet’s imprisonment are reluctant to bring the subject up in public.
“We just knew that if we mentioned it outside of our circles there may be things said, things misunderstood, and it’s always that misunderstanding that people are scared of,” says Omer Mohammad, an NU-Q alumni and member of its first graduating class.
“There’s no point talking about it because we know we don’t mean bad for the country or for anyone. But it’s the misunderstanding that could get us in some trouble.”
It brings to question: why would Qatar punish a dissident poet like al-Ajami and tightly regulate print media, but build free speech zones in its midst?
Many agree that the influence of Qatar’s famously progressive – and fabulously wealthy– royal family may be at work.
“Northwestern and all the universities on our campus were brought to Qatar by the Queen,” says Mohammad. “Theoretically she and her husband might be fine with the fact that we’re doing media freedom and all these things, but it’s the heads of the oil companies, or the prime minister, or whoever it might be, that may be like ‘Well it’s our company that you’re putting into the limelight, it’s our company’s bad laundry that you’re airing out, we don’t want you to do that.’”
Jeremy Cohen, the recently-appointed Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at NU-Q, says that “there is an emerging, as in relatively new, recognition of the importance of open communication – and I’m going to keep this relative to Middle Eastern terms as it’s not Chicago – which in many ways is led by the Emir as to the importance of the media as a watchdog.”
When it comes to promoting media freedom at NU-Q, Cohen says “I don’t think anyone here is hiding what they think. I mean people are not afraid to say ‘I believe in press freedom.’”
“We do amazing work, but at the end we don’t publish anything”
While NU-Q students are largely free to cover what they want for their stories, key challenges remain.
“The main obstacle is not necessarily that anybody is stopping them from reporting. I think the main obstacle is that it’s hard to get information,” says Chatriwala.
“If you ask a government entity or institution for a comment, more often than not, you’re not going to get a response,” he says. “That makes it hard to do a fair story when you’re only going to have one side of the story.”
Asma Ajroudi, an NU-Q junior who did a class project on media freedom within Qatar, says local sources were especially hard to get information out of.
“We interviewed lots of Qataris, editors-in-chief and stuff, and they’re not willing to push the boundaries. They say there are three things that they will never discuss: religion, politics and the royal family- no way,” she says.
For a story about a new law making it illegal for Qatar’s numerous migrant workers to live in Doha, Ajroudi spent an entire day in a government building trying to get an official to speak on camera.
“At the end he was like, ok I’ll agree to this on one condition: you can’t publish it,” Ajroudi says. “So we were like ok, whatever- we just need the grade. But that’s the problem here – we do amazing work, we work our asses off, and at the end we don’t publish anything. Because people are just too scared to say their opinion.”
Despite these obstacles, NU-Q continues to encourage students to push the envelope.
“I think Northwestern in general over the past couple of years has been very supportive of people going all the way to the limit, push reporting, push covering, push films, all the way to the edge,” says Mohammad.
Even with the challenges she encounters reporting in Qatar, Ajroudi concurs: “We’re the only school that’s pushing boundaries.”
But what happens when the Qatari government accuses a Northwestern student of breaking one of those boundaries?
Click on the photo below to read Part 2 of our series: “Northwestern University does not Help or Support Criminals”
*Correction: a previous version of this article stated Justin D. Martin was an associate professor at NU-Q. He is an assistant professor.