This was the experience of a Rasmus Tantholdt and the TV2 camera team just a few days ago while reporting at the World Cup in Qatar. The footage continues, showing Tantholdt presenting media accreditation to the officials and responding to their threats to destroy the camera.
Qatari authorities later apologized for the incident. Regardless, it does raise the question: Can media report freely in Qatar during the World Cup?
Claim: The government has been saying media are free in Qatar, including in a recent tweet by the national World Cup committee: “Thousands of journalists report from Qatar freely without interference each year.”
DW fact check: False
Based on DW’s research, the state does interfere with media coverage in Qatar. The very legal framework sets limitations on what journalists may cover.
This includes a 1979 press law that prohibits criticism of the emir and bans coverage of topics including “anything that may endanger the safety of the government.”
The International Federation of Journalists also points to a penal code revision from 2020 that “makes any spreading of fake news or rumors subject to very heavy fines and up to five years’ jail term,” as described by Pamela Moriniere of the trade association.
Journalists seeking accreditation for the World Cup must agree not to film or photograph in “residential properties, private businesses and industrial zones,” as the permit’s terms and conditions state. Government buildings, hospitals and religious locations are off-limits to reporters as well.
Those terms clearly allude “to sensitive areas where journalists have covered violations of migrant worker rights in the past,” the press freedoms group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) wrote in a statement.
In fact, RSF ranked Qatar No. 119 of 180 countries on its 2022 Press Freedoms Index🇧🇷 “We can comfortably say that press freedoms are not safe and are not protected in Qatar,” said Jonathan Dagher, head of RSF’s Middle East desk.
Qatar ranks higher than most of its Middle Eastern neighbors on the list, which, Dagher said, reflects the fact that no journalists are in long-term imprisonment there and that some degree of media pluralism does exist.
“This does not mean in any way that press freedoms in Qatar can be described as ‘good,'” he said.
‘Arrested for reporting’
“Journalists want to report beyond the matches,” Moriniere said. “We have already heard of situations where journalists have been arrested for reporting on migrant workers,” she added. “We’re quite concerned about that.”
In late 2021, for example, two Norwegian journalists were arrested while reporting on conditions of guest workers during World Cup construction.
A similar fate befell Florian Bauer, a journalist for public television in Germany who has worked in Qatar for over a decade. In 2015, when the Qatari government refused to grant permits allowing media coverage, the German team went ahead anyway and was filming in an industrial zone, including being invited by workers into their homes, when they were detained by Qatar’s intelligence service.
“We were interrogated for over 14 hours, got brought in front of the public prosecutor and weren’t allowed to leave the country for over five days,” Bauer said. “The German embassy had to convince the foreign minister of Qatar to actually let us leave the country,” he added.
This past September, Bauer was again the subject of scrutiny in Qatar. He said he and the camera team had driven to an industrial area when he noticed that they were being shadowed by agents from Qatar’s intelligence service. “That’s what I call intimidation,” he said.
Dagher said RSF had also received reports from journalists saying they felt they were under surveillance or being followed in Qatar.
“There are certain topics that are red lines,” Dagher said. “There’s a lot of self-censorship.”
Post-World Cup concerns
In an interview with Sky News after the incident a few days ago, Danish television reporter Tantholdt reflected that in the end the crew’s camera was safe and they were allowed to carry on, though he had not expected to be confronted during such a noncontroversial recording.
“To me, it also shows how Qatar is when there’s not a World Cup going on,” he said, expressing concern over the situation for reporters after the tournament has ended.
Dagher also reflected on the overarching implications. “While we disagree that journalists can work in Qatar without interference, we can acknowledge that certain steps have been taken,” he said. “We hope that these steps will be taken all the way, and that they will stay there after the World Cup.”
Edited by: Arnd Riekmann, Milan Gagnon
Ines Eisele contributed to reporting.