Qatar, al-Jazeera and HIV

A human rights organisation in South Africa is planning legal actionafter a journalist was sacked by al-Jazeera and expelled from Qatar following a positive HIV test.

The journalist – a South African who has not been identified – had recently taken up a post as a senior editor with al-Jazeera's English-language channel and had moved to Qatar where the station is based. He had agreed to undergo medical tests at the company's request, and a report in the South African Daily Maverick describes what happened next:

"A month later he had not received the results of his blood tests and then underwent blood tests at his own expense at a private clinic in Doha. When he returned for his results later that evening, he was chased off the clinic premises by clinic staff and security guards.

"The following day he was called to a meeting at Al Jazeera’s offices where he was ordered to get into a car. He was taken to Doha Prison, where he is said to have been detained in a crowded cell and was forced to undergo a full medical examination, including a full body search, in view of other prisoners.

"After his release from the Doha Prison, he was ordered to leave Qatar within 48 hours, failing which he would be arrested. He was also informed that his employment contract had been terminated."

Qatar is among a fairly large number of countries that impose some kind of entry restrictions for people with HIV (lists here) – though that doesn't excuse the appalling way the man was apparently treated. There are various other health restrictions for residency visas in Qatar, including hepatitis and TB (discussion here). 

Such rules are usually intended to prevent foreign workers – in the food industry, for example – from transmitting diseases such as hepatitis in the course of their work. However, it's difficult to make the same argument about a journalist with HIV working in television. As for sex ... that's illegal anyway in Qatar unless a couple are married.

Al-Jazeera has more or less washed its hands of the matter, saying it has to comply with the law in Qatar and it can't employ a journalist there without a visa. That may be true but, considering the man was one of its employees, it might have been a lot more supportive. The TV network employs several thousand people worldwide, so it doesn't seem unreasonable to suggest the company might have explored finding alternative work for him somewhere else.

Like most Arab countries, Qatar prides itself on having extremely low HIV rates (only six new cases have been diagnosed this year), though because of the stigma attached it is likely that many more cases go undiagnosed.

News of the journalist's expulsion came just a few days after Qatar marked World Aids Day by announcing a new – and apparently more enlightened – strategy for fighting HIV. Dr Mohamed bin Hamad al-Thani, director of the public health department, said: "If we try to explore the reason behind HIV-related stigma and discrimination, we will find that it is largely due to fear and this fear arises out of misunderstanding about the modes of transmission of the infection, its relation to socially unacceptable behaviours and the belief that HIV is a fatal disease."

He added that the infection cannot be transmitted by casual contact and that HIV is now being regarded as a chronic disease that needs continuous treatment.

Unfortunately, that message doesn't appear to have got through to the department issuing visas for Qatar.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 December 2011.