Attacks on the Press 2002: Qatar

Operating from the tiny, gas-rich Persian Gulf monarchy of Qatar, the 24-hour satellite news channel Al-Jazeera continued to break news and spark controversy in 2002. During the last six years, the station has helped transform television news in the Arab world through bold, uncensored programming and raucous political debates that reach millions in the Middle East and beyond.

A year after making headlines across the globe with its coverage from Afghanistan and its broadcasts of Osama bin Laden’s taped messages, the network remained the most influential news channel in the region.

As in previous years, Al-Jazeera continued to trigger official complaints and reprisals from governments across the Middle East for its provocative coverage. In May, Bahraini authorities barred the station’s reporters from covering the country’s municipal elections, alleging that the station “harms Bahrain and Bahrain’s citizens” and is a medium for “Zionist infiltration in the Gulf region.” In Jordan, the government closed the station’s Amman bureau after a guest on a talk show criticized the country’s relationship with Israel and mocked King Abdullah’s limited knowledge of Arabic. Jordan also pulled its ambassador from Qatar’s capital, Doha, in August for four months in protest. Saudi Arabia did the same in late September because of coverage it deemed anti-Saudi. Meanwhile, governments throughout the region issued formal protests, while their own domestic media launched acerbic attacks against the channel.

For all of Al-Jazeera’s successes, critics in the Arab world highlight the station’s soft coverage of Qatari affairs and its failure to criticize the country’s ruling family with the same zeal it uses for other leaders.

In 2001, the station’s US$140 million start-up grant from the Qatari government expired, and station officials announced that the channel would begin operating independent of government financing. It is unclear whether the government still provides money, or if the station can survive without government backing.

Other broadcast and print media in Qatar do not display the same flair as Al-Jazeera, although some papers are considered more liberal than their counterparts elsewhere in the Gulf. Authorities have taken a number of encouraging steps to free the media since Qatar’s emir, Hamed bin Khalifa al-Thani, deposed his father in a bloodless 1995 coup, including abolishing the Information Ministry and ending formal censorship. Nevertheless, self-censorship remains common, and the local media avoid direct criticism of the emir and other sensitive political topics.

Although the print media are in private hands, ownership is closely linked with the government through personal relations. The government is responsible for licensing publications, and several criminal statutes exist that can be employed against critics. Under the Press Law, for example, it is prohibited to “criticize” the emir or to publish news that “harms supreme national interests.” Foreign publications can be censored, and the state controls Internet access.

In October, Feras al-Majalli, a Jordanian national working for Qatar State Television, was sentenced to death for spying. It remains unclear how credible the charges against him are. Many observers, however, suspect that al-Majalli is being used as a pawn in the building tensions between Qatar and Jordan. According to al-Majalli’s lawyer, his client’s trial was plagued by irregularities, including the state’s appointment of new judges prior to the verdict. Al-Majalli has appealed the case.