EU rights envoy sounds alarm on Qatar freedom of speech

Rights groups frequently criticise Qatari authorities for encouraging self-censorship among publishers.
Tuesday 18/02/2020
 EU Special Representative for Human Rights Eamon Gilmore. (AFP)
EU Special Representative for Human Rights Eamon Gilmore. (AFP)

DOHA - Qatar should scrap several laws that impede free speech and expression, the European Union's human rights envoy said at an event in Doha promoting the online rights of activists.

Rights groups frequently criticise authorities for encouraging self-censorship among publishers, particularly on LGBT issues and security matters that have undergone global scrutiny as Qatar prepares to host the 2022 World Cup.

"I am concerned about some pieces of legislation which relate to freedom of expression and freedom of the press," EU Special Representative for Human Rights Eamon Gilmore said February 17.

He highlighted the 1979 press law that governs the licensing of printed material and allows officials to demand corrections to news stories. Publications can be suspended under the law for up to three months for printing items deemed against the public interest.

Gilmore said he raised the concerns with the Foreign Affairs Ministry and the National Human Rights Committee, which is sponsoring staging a 2-day conference on "Challenges and ways to promote freedoms and protect activists."

"Freedom of expression is a very important part of the way in which the European Union sees human rights. We attach a very high priority to it," he said.

The EU delegation also raised concerns about a cybercrime prevention law enacted in 2014 that carries a 3-year prison sentence for anyone convicted of establishing a digital platform for "fake news." However, no definition of what constitutes "fake news" is given in the act.

The penalty was recently increased to five years for cases in which "ill intent" could be proved.

"We urge that those laws be amended, changed or withdrawn," Gilmore said.

The laws were also flagged as problematic during Qatar's Universal Periodic Review, the scrutiny process that all 193 UN members must undergo approximately every four years, he added.

UN experts previously warned that Qatar's strict "lese majeste" laws, which prohibit disrespect of the ruler or other officials and carry custodial sentences, could amount to arbitrary detention because they violate free speech rights.

"It appears to be rarely used in practice, the working group nevertheless calls for the provision to be repealed," the experts said during a working visit to Qatar in November.

UN experts are independent and do not speak for the world body but their findings can be used to inform the work of UN organisations, including the rights council.

(Agence France-Presse)