Inside the Doha Centre for Media Freedom. An interview to the director Jan Keulen


The Doha Centre for Media Freedom is an organization founded in 2008 with the political and financial support – a 4 million dollar annual budget – of Mozah bint el Misnid, the Emir of Qatar’s powerful wife. Its objective: to assist journalists whose lives are in danger and promote media freedom from the heart of the Persian Gulf. For two years Jan Keulen is at its head. Dutch, class of 1950 and a life spent as a Middle East correspondent forVolkskrant daily newspaper. This is certainly not a simple task because prior to fighting for journalistic and media freedom in the world, Qatar, Al-Jazeera’s homeland, finds itself fighting against its own same contradictions: a forty year old press law, a marked attitude of self-censorship by local media and a closure towards freedom of expression by the country’s more conservative fringes. Unsurprisingly, the Doha Centre’s former director, Robert Ménard, founder of Reporters without Borders was accused by the Qatari press of having invited “the Devil in person”, Flemming Rose, director of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten that published the infamous satirical cartoons of Prophet Muhammad in 2005, to Doha. Ménard denied this incident in his book Mirages et Cheikhs en Blanc. According to the French journalist this was just a pretext to be rid of an uncomfortable presence for some elements of the country’s ruling class. In 2009, in fact, little more than a year after the Doha Centre’s inauguration, Ménard handed in his resignations

Judging by Robert Ménard’s testimony directing a pro media freedom organization in Qatar requires the ability to compromise.

It certainly requires diplomacy, the ability to understand the place you find yourself in and the culture that you are constantly in comparison with. I do not like the word ‘compromise’ because this would mean going against my ideas and principles of autonomy and freedom of expression. Ménard and myself certainly have two different personalities as well as two different backgrounds. My personal and professional story is largely tied to the Middle East, where I have lived and worked for almost thirty years first as a correspondent and after as a journalism trainer.

When I arrived at the Doha Centre I did not expect this part of the world to suddenly become a haven for press freedom and this is precisely why I am here: to contribute towards and put a process of change in motion. Naturally there are those who do not share our mission. Just to give you one example, since my appointment to the Doha Centre, my staff and myself have been the object of a defamatory campaign on behalf of a local newspaper that has represented me, with many satirical cartoons, as the typical foreigner who comes to the Gulf to take advantage of golden salaries and a life of luxury. In any case I find this government’s initiative in favour of freedom of expression very courageous, confirming Qatar as a unique country in the region.

What are the Doha Centre’s main activities and objectives?

Freedom and quality of information are the two main themes around which the Centre works. Firstly, we try to take care of journalists in difficulty precisely because they have attempted to carry out their duty thoroughly. The Centre has a department, which offers support to individual journalists either medical or legal but also provides help in finding new equipment such as video recorders or cameras that have been destroyed or confiscated. For example this occurs in the case of cameramen injured in the Gaza Strip during Israeli raids, or, journalists who have undergone violence and require psychological help.

On the other hand we make information by trying to diffuse knowledge on the status of press freedom violation. We do this through our website but also through publications, events and debates. Furthermore, we provide training courses to journalists, which go from security in war situations to investigative reporting. We carry out training activities both in-house as well as in other countries like the Gaza Strip, Libya, Iraq and soon also Yemen.

What are the advantages of being based in the Middle East?

The advantage is that we can consider ourselves as an all-round regional organization. Apart from myself and one or two other collaborators, the entire staff is Arab speaking and this enables us to act in the region without go betweens. Moreover, we have initiated a programme of ‘media literacy’ in Qatar because we are convinced that press freedom does not solely depend on politics or journalists but is also tied to the public.

In countries such as Qatar, swamped with computers and smartphones, it is important to teach people how to go about selecting information and promoting values such as freedom of the press. We do this directly in schools with courses for students and adults. Our final objective is to include media literacy in Qatari school programmes and we are carrying out the same job in Bahrain, Jordan and Egypt. It is important to allow a critical spirit to emerge in people and enable them to form their own opinion and act in an autonomous fashion.

How does Qatar score on the plane of freedom of information at the regional level?

If we look back at the last twenty years, I think that out of the six Gulf countries, Kuwait and Bahrain are the ones that have made most significant progress. Bahrain was crossed by protests on the tide of the Arab Spring, which, however, substantially failed. Paradoxically this had some very negative consequences for local media. Lots of journalists have been forced into exile, some newspapers have had to shut down and several bloggers and citizen journalists have been imprisoned.

If we look at international indexes of freedom of expression, Qatar does not score very well. This is due in part to the absence of a clear legal framework: the law on media dates back to the 70’s when satellite television and Internet were still unknown. Of course the Emir has abolished both preventive censorship and the Ministry of Information and at the moment we don’t have any imprisoned journalists or banned publications. Having said this, in Qatar, the phenomenon of self-censorship exists amongst local journalists.

How are local media financed: is there a market or are they all tied to the government?

As regards radio and television, they are all government owned including Al-Jazeera, and as you know, this country’s government is one of the wealthiest in the world, something that inevitably affects the internal order and balance of its media. With regard to the press, we have three private publishing houses which publish seven daily newspapers of which three in English, and judging from the number of insertions and glossy brochures employed, one can sense that there is a blossoming and lucrative advertising market, which is not always positive from a journalistic point of view.

In other words?

You see, the majority of workers in the media sector (I am talking about roughly 95%), including photographers and translators, are foreigners. Here in Qatar their salaries are much higher than what they would be in their countries of origin. We are talking about numerous journalists from countries like India, Bangladesh and Sudan. These are people who are little involved in local affairs and very careful not to lose their position and salary. Some are frustrated at being unable to do their profession thoroughly but there are no incentives in this direction. And then, given the absence of a clear law the question of what one is or is not allowed to say always remains open.

And maybe there is also the fact that a foreigner’s visa in Qatar can be revoked at any time without having to provide much justification….

I would say that as in other Gulf countries this phenomenon also exists in Qatar. Let us put it this way, legal protection concerning foreigners could certainly be improved. Add to this the fact that in media, as in other professions, there is no trade union or any other form of association. Journalists are therefore left alone in managing their relationship with their employer and with the government. And, these are all elements that contribute to heighten the issue of self-censorship.

So, the local press will never be able to address delicate issues such as the presence of the largest American military base in the region, for example, or, the condition of immigrant workers in the construction sector?

When I talk about self-censorship I am precisely referring to these kinds of issues. I remember that last year I was at a Human Rights Watch press conference in which a report on the situation of domestic workers in Qatar was presented. It was a report that openly denounced these workers’ conditions. Local journalists were left overwhelmed at having been invited to the presentation of a report that openly criticised the country’s government. They were asking themselves what to do, publish or not publish the piece of news?

And in the end how did they behave?

In the end, only Al-Jazeera covered the event in more depth. As for other newspapers, some ignored this report, whereas others reported it very briefly. The thing that amused me the most was an article in which a journalist from Peninsula, a local newspaper in English, confessed how after many years in Qatar he had found himself participating in this type of conference for the first time and with disarming honesty admitted not knowing what to do: report the criticisms contained in that report or not? This says a lot about the climate that prevails amongst local journalists.

Al-Jazeera is the most followed channel in the Arab world, is it also in its homeland?

When we discuss Al-Jazeera, we are talking about a media empire, which not only includes the all-News section but also documentaries, sport, entertainment and children’s channels. Qatar is naturally proud of it and it has a big following as in other Arab countries, also because a large part of the country’s immigrants is Arab speaking. The paradox is that, if you compare Al-Jazeera’s quality to that of local TV’s there is a large gap. Local channels are outdated and not very sophisticated from the perspective of content and images. Now there is also a push towards the renewal of local TV, especially with the new channel al Rayyan, entirely dedicated to the country’s culture and internal affairs but with a more modern approach. Of course, there is also a contradiction here: operating behind the scenes of Rayyan there are mainly Lebanese journalists whose task is to propose an ‘authentically’ Qatari product.

When Al-Jazeera comments on government actions in its country does this trigger the same mechanism of self-censorship experienced by local media?

We must never forget that Al-Jazeera was created and financed by the government. It is to all intents and purposes a government-owned company. From the start its policy has always been to report world events always and everywhere, except those in its own backyard. But I think that this argument is not as valid for Al-Jazeera English that sometimes pushes itself to talk about internal affairs. For Al-Jazeera in Arabic the approach is to disregard internal Qatari affairs.

The relationship between Islam and freedom of expression is another crucial question, particularly in countries with a Wahabite tradition….

Qatar is a Wahabite country but we certainly do not see the same types of limitations present in other Wahabite states such as Saudi Arabia: women work and drive cars, there is no religious police and buying alcohol and pork meat is permitted. And when we talk about bloggers being persecuted for blasphemy, I have never heard of any reported cases in Qatar. Of course we have another type of phenomenon. Qatari leadership is, in many ways, open to the West but there is a segment of the population who remains critical of this type of approach and who is hostile to the large presence of foreigners who occupy positions of prestige in their country. Also with regards to freedom of expression there are people who think they do not need it here in Qatar and others go further by considering it a Western invention! If this attitude can be considered “Wahabite” I cannot say.

I think that the population’s main concern is linked to the loss (and construction) of an identity. Islam certainly represents a large part of this identity.

What is the level of Internet censorship in Qatar?

Internet censorship does exist, especially for pornographic sites and some political sites. If you navigate on Qtel, the country’s main internet provider, sometimes a warning dialog will appear on your page that says: “the webpage cannot be accessed from this country”, and it adds that if you contest this ban you can make a complaint to an email address. But honestly, I have never heard of anyone having any success in accessing a banned website after filing a complaint. The web is, however, a less controlled space and more open than other media. To give an example, there is the case of a Qatari poet who received a life sentence for instigating the population to overthrow the Emir’s government through one of his poems. The issue is totally ignored by traditional media but highly debated on the internet.

Has the echo of the Arab Spring also arrived here?

I wouldn’t say so. Qatar’s situation is very particular. The autochthonous population is roughly 250 thousand out of a total of 600 thousand inhabitants. This is a minority but a very rich and influential one. Let us not forget that Qatari’s have the highest per capita income in the world (over $100,000) a year, which guarantees great well-being. In addition, there are no trade union struggles as in Oman or sectarian tensions as in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia, nor is there a political tradition as there is in Kuwait and this has certainly contributed to not provoking protests or movements of any type. However, the Qatari government has officially backed the toppling of the regimes of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, not only via Al-Jazeera but also through other forms of support to the new governments.

Translated by Maria Elena Bottigliero