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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.

Doha Centre for Media Freedom funding withheld 23, June 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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Doha’s Centre for Media Freedom, true to its ethos, vented its anger regarding what it sees as official meddling and non-payment. In an article it claimed that it had not been paid its stipulated and agreed funds by the 1st April. This meant that it was unable to fulfill its mandate and help journalists in dire need. It vaguely cites “some members of the government” as purposefully withholding payment. Until April, the Centre had given a total of 254 assistance grants to journalists in need around the world.

Although the Centre’s budget is a paltry $4 million by the standards of Qatar’s gas wealth, the Centre does not endear itself to the government. It criticizes the state as and when it sees fit and its criticisms of neighbouring countries will, as Al Jazeera has in the past, cause many issues for the Qatari government. The current head of the organisation, Robert Ménard, has something of a direct and even confrontational style when pursuing his work. How long the Centre will function, be funded and be headed by Ménard must be – unfortunately – open to question.

Qatar articles 19, May 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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Some recent articles on Qatar:

  • LNG supply to be mopped up by thirsty China, according to Qatar’s Energy Minister.
  • A good summary article of the LNG UK-Qatar relationship which will, among other things, reduce Russia’s strangle-hold on European gas supplies.
  • A far more detailed overview of Qatar’s LNG in MEED.
  • Germany are to sell main battle tanks to Qatar.
  • ‘The Doha Deceleration’  – Qatar’s ‘Doha Centre for Media Freedom’ and UNESCO have made something of a (relatively) bombastic statement on the importance of media freedoms.
  • The opening of a Japanese school in Doha.
  • A very good Economist article on the limits of freedom facing Qatar’s ‘Doha Centre for Media Freedom’. It focuses on its controversial French director, Robert Ménard, and his apparent desire to either poke, prod and push the powers that be in Qatar into sacking him or to really test the boundaries of Qatar’s press freedom.
  • Qatar set to reopen its North Field after a long moratorium.

Rabat’s reaction to Al Jazeera 8, May 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Al-Jazeera, North Africa, Qatar.
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I hope to start listing the reactions from around the Arab world to Al Jazeera. In the past, these have ranged from the withdrawal of Ambassadors to the shutting down of electricity in main cities to avoid citizens watching an Al Jazeera documentary.

Here is Doha’s Centre for Media Freedom commenting on the Moroccan authorities:

The Rabat appeal court reduced the fine against Hassan Rachidi, Al Jazeera’s former bureau chief in Morocco, for “putting out false information” to 30,000 dirhams (about US$ 3,600) yesterday.

The ruling came a year to the day after the satellite TV channel’s frequency was withdrawn, which meant its North African news programme could no longer be broadcast from Rabat.

The Moroccan authorities charged Rachidi under article 42 of the press law after he reported on air that several people had died in clashes between police and inhabitants of Sidi Ifni, in the south of the country, in June. The journalist quoted inaccurate statements made by a human rights organisation.

Although the channel later issued a denial, Rachidi was fined 50,000 dirhams and the communications ministry withdrew his accreditation. He has since left Morocco and gone to work at Al Jazeera headquarters in Qatar.

“Al Jazeera’s presence in Morocco is particularly important because it challenges other governments in the region which refuse to let the channel in”, the Doha Centre said. “Its journalists must be allowed to work freely.

“Unfortunately, the decisions taken against Al Jazeera by the Rabat authorities in 2008 were a sign of growing official tension against the channel. The sudden, groundless ban on the regional news programme broadcast from Rabat, which was an important platform for many Moroccan politicians and human rights activists, was a striking example.”

Al Jazeera opened its Moroccan bureau in 2004 and launched the North African news programme two years later.