A civil defense officer carries the body of a young victim a mall fire during a funeral in Doha on May 29, 2012. Hearings to determine criminal responsibility for the fire are underway. (Reuters/Hamad I Mohammed)
A civil defense officer carries the body of a young victim a mall fire during a funeral in Doha on May 29, 2012. Hearings to determine criminal responsibility for the fire are underway. (Reuters/Hamad I Mohammed)

In UAE and Qatar, key trials go unreported as media barred

In the past month, officials in both the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have prevented journalists from reporting on important court proceedings. But it is not too late to allow the press to cover these crucial cases.

In the UAE, the trial of 94 Islamists accused of plotting to overthrow the government began on March 4, according to news reports. The stakes are incredibly high. The UAE has long struggled to stifle dissent, especially from Islamist groups, but the sheer number of arrests is unprecedented. Many local and international human rights groups have criticized the proceedings. In a joint statement, the Gulf Center for Human Rights, the International Federation for Human Rights, the Arab Network for Human Rights International and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies blasted the “flagrant disregard” for international standards of due process in the case.

The trial also has significant regional implications. The defendants are accused of being members of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose legal status varies in the region from an illegal group to the ruling party in Egypt. The Emirati political analyst Sultan al-Qassemi recently argued in Foreign Policy that the emergence of the UAE as “one of the Brotherhood’s primary antagonists” has significantly strained relations with countries like Egypt and Qatar. The trial, which Qassemi called a “litmus test” for the Emirati judicial system, could also set a precedent for how other Gulf countries deal with dissident voices.

As such, the trial deserves significant media scrutiny. But international journalists, and at least two human rights observers, have been denied access to the court, Reuters reports. The decision is extremely troubling. Unlike international journalists, the local press does not have the freedom to report objectively and critically on the court proceedings. As Matt Duffy, an expert on journalism and media law, wrote for Al-Monitor, “The local media has simply followed a long-standing precedent of generally not reporting on matters related to state security, unless the state news agency issues a statement first.” He continued, “The editors understand that the best way to keep their jobs is to follow the unwritten rules” of not probing government officials about the trial or interviewing family members.

The UAE has taken steps to further censor reports on the trial. On March 22, authorities arrested activist Abdullah al-Hadidi for purportedly spreading false news about the case on Twitter, according to regional human rights groups.  Al-Hadidi, the son of one of the defendants, had attempted to fill the media vacuum by tweeting about the proceedings and taking interviews. Perhaps in recognition of the crucial role the family members like al-Hadidi have played in spreading information about the trial, authorities have recently banned them from attending the court as well, the Emirates Centre for Human Rights reported.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Qatar, authorities have prevented journalists from reporting on crucial court hearings to determine criminal responsibility for a fire in the Villagio shopping mall that killed 19 people, including 13 children, last May. The defendants include the co-owners of a nursery in the mall, four mall officials, and an employee of the ministry of business and trade. The fire captivated the media at the time, but the court proceedings have received significantly less attention–with a few notable exceptions. The online English news website Doha News, which garnered significant praise from other media outlets for its initial coverage of the fire, had been reporting consistently from the ongoing hearings. That is, until the judge put a stop to it.

According to Doha News co-founder Shabina Khatri, the judge declared during the 11th court hearing on February 14 that any journalist wishing to report on the proceedings must first submit a letter requesting permission. When Doha News submitted such a letter, the judge said only newspapers with “official” status can be granted permission.  Khatri told the Doha Centre for Media Freedom that as a solely digital publication, Doha News does not have such recognition, even though it has previously reported on official events without issue and government ministries send the website press releases. Another local English newspaper, The Peninsula, was also prevented from reporting on the hearings, but it is not clear why. (The Peninsula editors did not respond to my email seeking comment).

Khatri in an email told me that, after consultation with a lawyer, Doha News has decided to obey the judge’s orders for now by attending the hearings without reporting on them.  Still, she insisted that “we also don’t plan to give up so easily [because] the Villagio hearings are of high public interest and importance.”

As with the UAE, the rest of the local press does not have the freedom to report on the hearings critically and often exercises self-censorship. English publications like Doha News and The Peninsula can sometimes push the boundaries more than Arabic press. Three court sessions have been held since the judge’s decision and closing arguments were delivered Thursday. The judge will likely announce on April 4 when verdicts will be declared. Meanwhile, the hearings about the fire that stunned all of Qatar go unreported.

Without media coverage, the Qatar government faces less pressure to hold those responsible for the fire to account and implement changes to avoid similar tragedies in the future. As Martin Weekes, the father of three children killed in the fire, told the Doha Centre for Media Freedom, “The public should know what happened to be satisfied it can’t happen again.”

It is not rare for governments to deny journalists access to court proceedings. As my colleague Sumit Galhotra reported for CPJ, India only recently lifted a gag order on media covering the ongoing trial of those accused of gang raping and murdering a 23-year-old student in Delhi in December. In Egypt, several media outlets were denied access to former president Hosni Mubarak’s trial in 2011, according to Al-Jazeera. Even in the U.S., journalists are sometimes restricted from court rooms to avoid the disclosure of information deemed detrimental to national security or prejudicial to the defendants.

There is always a balance between the public’s right to know information and the potential damage the dissemination of the information may cause, and honest debates can be had over the grey zones. In both of these cases, however, the public has a real and compelling interest to learn about the proceedings and ensure their governments act responsibly and justly. Without proper media coverage, that public interest will go unfulfilled–to the detriment of all.

It is not too late to fulfil that public interest. The UAE 94 trial has just begun. And even though the Villagio hearings will end soon, media coverage will still be needed to ensure justice is carried out and the government works to implement reforms.