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Huge blow for Doha’s Centre for Media Freedom 24, June 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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As I feared and predicted only yesterday, Robert Ménard the outspoken former head of Reporters Without Borders and the (then) head of The Doha Center for Media Freedom has quit along with his senior team. The final straw appears to have been the blocking of funding by higher authorities even though this was promised by the Centre’s funding charter.

The statement that Menard gave on his departure was scathing. He claimed that the Centre was being ‘suffocated’ by people that never wanted a truly independent Centre in the first place. He decried his inability to criticize Qatar itself saying “How can we have any credibility if we keep quiet about problems in the country that is our host?” He specifically singled Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer Al Thani, the head of Al Jazeera and who sat on the Centre’s board for criticism. Apparently, he refused to sign administrative documents to accept journalists under threat in other countries as well as seeking to extend more control over the Centre’s actions.

Ménard does, however, point out some of the good work that the Centre has managed to achieve recently, including giving assistance to deceased journalists’ families and providing flack-jackets for journalists who needed them. Furthermore, he singles out praise for Shiekha Mowza and Emir Hamad Al Thani, suggesting that they are, perhaps, somewhat ahead of their time.

Such a demise was, however, predictable. Having a truly independent Centre of this type in the Middle East would be highly difficult. Ménard’s frustration and anger is understandable, but how could Qatar, a tiny country in the Persian Gulf, accept journalists fleeing from, for example Iran, without creating an international incident? Unlike in the West, the State is assumed to be in control of more or less every organ in the country when it comes to matters such as these. Hence the difficulties that Al Jazeera has caused over the years for the government in Doha. Protestations that Al Jazeera or this Centre are independent entities and the government of Qatar do not exercise control over them are met with implacable demands to get them under control by other countries. Such independence is anathema to the Middle East as a whole.

This event caps a troubling and turbulent few months of media in the Middle East. The UAE introduced somewhat draconian laws severely hampering journalists’ freedoms and threatening them with jail terms or fines. Qatar too is apparently considering such laws making defamation of religion, the Emir or the country illegal. Also, the former British Editor of the National, the UAE based paper resigned, it is believed over the UAE’s press law and censorship issues more generally.