Qatar orders closure of Doha Centre for Media Freedom

The official website was closed abruptly and media content was replaced with a message that thanked DCMF staff.
Wednesday 01/05/2019
This October 2015 file photo shows Qatar-based Al-Jazeera English's acting managing director, Giles Trendle (Right), and Al-Jazeera Media Network's acting director general, Mostefa Souag (Left), at the English-language channel's newsroom in Doha. (AFP)
This October 2015 file photo shows Qatar-based Al-Jazeera English's acting managing director, Giles Trendle (Right), and Al-Jazeera Media Network's acting director general, Mostefa Souag (Left), at the English-language channel's newsroom in Doha. (AFP)

LONDON - The Qatari government abruptly ordered the closure of the Doha Centre for Media Freedom, despite promises it had made to advance free press throughout the Middle East.

The website was closed and content was replaced with a message that thanked Doha Centre for Media Freedom (DCMF) staff, partners and observers for their service and support. DCMF publications, reports and articles, once available in English, Arabic and French, are no longer accessible.

DCMF was founded in October 2008 by royal decree and included local and international journalists. Its efforts to champion free speech were stalled by differences between various directors and Qatari authorities. Recommendations, including media reform and the adoption of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, were never adopted by Doha.

The centre filed hundreds of assistance grants in its first months of operations and had a budget, granted by the government, estimated at $4 million.

A drive to recruit staff members from abroad failed to create the desired shift within the local media sector. The centre marked Press Freedom Day annually but “there are few accomplishments the centre can mention,” said a Qatari journalist, who did not want his name disclosed. The centre seldom commented on domestic issues, he added.

The DCMF appears to have been up against stiff opposition since its founding from members of the ruling class, particularly DCMF Chairman Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer al-Thani.

“Certain Qatari officials never wanted an independent centre, one that was free to express its views without being limited by political or diplomatic considerations, one that was free to criticise Qatar itself,” the centre’s former director, Robert Menard, who is founder of Reporters Without Borders, said in a resignation statement in 2009. “But how can you be credible if you say nothing about the problems in the country in which you are based?”

Publicity sparked by Menard’s resignation drew criticism of Qatari authorities for the “disappointing attitude” it displayed, Reporters without Borders Secretary-General Jean-Francois Julliard said in a statement at the time. Unable to report freely, Menard resigned as DCMF director-general after only eight months.

Qatari officials sought, in 2009, to stop the centre's head of research, Hajar Smouni, from travelling to Bahrain for talks with Shaikha Mai al-Khalifa about reforming press laws. Menard criticised restrictions on Smouni as "unacceptable." Authorities had not warned Smouni, whose ban was eventually lifted but not in time for her to attend the meeting.

The centre became part of a Qatari media sector in which criticism of the ruling family is not tolerated.

Qatari journalist and deputy editor of Qatar’s Al-Sharq newspaper Jassim Salman, on Twitter, praised the idea of the centre and urged that it should be reactivated.

“The present moment calls for a strong media and as a weapon to confront others with," he wrote against the backdrop of the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last October in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

The centre suspended operations for two years after Menard stepped down but was reactivated following the appointment of Dutch-national Jan Keulen as its director. His position was suspended in 2013 but there was never an official explanation as to why.

The sudden move raises questions about the future of journalism in Qatar and a crackdown on press freedoms. The government has been criticised online in the past for arbitrary censorship.

As Qatar prepares to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Qataris and international observers are increasingly aware of the shrinking space for press freedoms.

Over the past three years, Qatar has fallen five places to 128th on the “World Press Freedom Index.”