Qatar's 'repressive' press law sparks international outcry

The new provisions are "a blatant breach of international human rights law,” said Amnesty International.
Wednesday 22/01/2020
A portrait of Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani  in Doha. (AFP)
A portrait of Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani in Doha. (AFP)

LONDON - A new Qatari law restricting freedom of expression and the work of media professionals has triggered a huge international outcry, especially among rights organisations.

The law, issued by Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani and published in Qatar’s Official Gazette on January 19, includes a new provision authorising the detention of  “anyone who broadcasts, publishes, or republishes false or biased rumours, statements, or news, or inflammatory propaganda, domestically or abroad, with the intent to harm national interests, stir up public opinion, or infringe on the social system or the public system of the state.”

Freedom of expression and human rights advocates expressed concern that Qatar, which often portrays itself as a leader in press freedoms in the region, is enacting a legislative framework that enables authorities to effectively crack down on any form of criticism or dissent. The law’s vague provisions, they say, can offer the state a pretext to prosecute legitimate free expression and press activities. 

“This law effectively signals a worrying regression from commitments made two years ago to guarantee the right to freedom of expression,” said Lynn Maalouf, research director for Amnesty International’s Middle East branch. “Qatar already has a host of repressive laws, but this new legislation deals another bitter blow to freedom of expression in the country and is a blatant breach of international human rights law.”
“It is deeply troubling that the Qatari Emir is passing legislation that can be used to silence peaceful critics. Qatar’s authorities should be repealing such laws, in line with their international legal obligations, not adding more of them,” she added.

Qatar signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights last year, which includes commitments to uphold freedom of expression

According to rights advocates, the sentencing guidelines are also disproportionate. “Biased” reporting, for instance, is punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of more than $25,000 US dollars.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said January 22 that it "considers the new law a significant setback for freedom of expression in Qatar and a violation of Qatar’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which it recently ratified to international praise." 

“Qatar’s commitment to human rights needs to be about more than just getting international applause,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.  “The authorities need to actually apply the treaties they join and reform their laws to better protect free speech and other basic rights.”

Pre-existing legislation include Qatar’s 2014 cybercrimes law, which criminalises the dissemination of “false news” on the internet and provides a maximum of three years in prison for anyone convicted of posting online content that “violates social values or principles,” or “insults or slanders others,” points out Human Rights Watch January 22. 

Al Raya newspaper, which broke the story Qatar’s new legislation prior to its official publication, even felt compelled to withdraw its news article. 

"We apologize to our readers for the polemic about the penal code amendments received by Al Raya from unofficial sources and which it published without checking with competent parties. It should be known that we have deleted the information from our website and social media accounts,” said the newspaper. 

Senior Middle East and North Africa Researcher Justin Shilad at the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said: “Qatar should rescind this repressive law and focus instead on legislation that enshrines press freedom in line with its international human rights law commitments.”