Qatar: land of the free?

Trumpeting freedom of thought in Qatar: Sheikh Khalid bin Jassim al-Thani

At the United Nations, Qatar has been boasting about its support for the right to "freedom of religion or belief" and the right to "freedom of opinion and expression". The "positive practice" of these two rights "can contribute to strengthening both of them", according to Sheikh Khalid bin Jassim al-Thani, head of the foreign ministry's human rights section.

So what is Qatar doing to support these rights?

Political parties are not allowed in Qatar and there is no mechanism allowing citizens to peacefully change their government. Merely criticising the emir or calling for this system to be changed can result in a lengthy prison sentence.

In 2011, Mohammed al-Ajami, a Qatari poet, was arrested on charges of “insulting” the emir (punishable by five years in jail) and "inciting to overthrow the ruling system" (punishable by death). The main reason for his arrest seems to have been a poem celebrating the Tunisian revolution which contained a line saying “We are all Tunisia in the face of the repressive elite”. He was initially jailed for life, though his sentence was later reduced to 15 years.

Media restrictions

“Qatar enjoys a reputation as a centre for media freedom, due in no small part to its funding and hosting the Al Jazeera news network,” Human Rights Watch said in its latest annual report. “However,” it continued, “in 2015, authorities detained two groups of foreign journalists attempting to report on the treatment of migrant workers in the country.”

Authorities detained a group of journalists from West German Broadcasting in March, and a group of BBC journalists in May.

In both cases, police officers confiscated equipment, including memory cards and phones, and both groups were questioned separately by state security officers and the public prosecutor.

Authorities released the German journalists after 14 hours of questioning, but the BBC team spent two nights in detention. Qatar’s Government Communications Office said the BBC crew had “trespassed on private property, which is illegal in Qatar.”

Two other German journalists were detained in 2013 after filming the working conditions of migrant labourers.

All the newspapers printed in Qatar are owned by members of the ruling family or others closely connected with the government.

In its most recent human rights report on Qatar (covering 2014), the US State Department said:

The law provides for restrictive procedures on the establishment of newspapers, closure, and confiscation of assets of a publication. It also criminalises libel and slander, including injury to dignity ...

Journalists and publishers continued to self-censor due to political and economic pressures when reporting on government policies or material deemed hostile to Islam, the ruling family, and relations with neighboring states. 

The Qatar Media Corporation, the Ministry of Culture, and customs officials censored material … The government reviewed, censored, or banned foreign newspapers, magazines, films, and books for objectionable sexual, religious, and political content...

Laws restrict the publication of information that could incite the overthrow of the regime, abuse the regime, or harm supreme state interests; slander the emir or heir apparent; report official secret agreements; ridicule or express contempt for one of the Abrahamic faiths; prejudice heads of state or disturb relations; harm the national currency or the economic situation; violate the dignity of persons, the proceedings of investigations, and prosecutions in relation to family status; or defame the state or endanger its safety.

Internet restrictions

In 2014 the emir signed a new “cybercrime” law which Amnesty International denounced as a major setback for freedom of expression in Qatar. Besides criminalising dissemination of “false news” on the internet, it gave the authorities power to ban websites that they considered threatening to the “safety” of the country and to punish anyone posting or sharing online content that “undermines” Qatar’s “social values” or “general order”. 

Since the law failed to define these terms, it was left to the authorities to decide what they meant. “There is a real danger that legitimate, peaceful expression could be seriously undermined,” Said Boumedouha of Amnesty International warned. 

Maximum punishment under the cybercrime law is three years in prison and a fine of 500,000 Qatari riyals ($137,200).
The State Department’s report adds that the law requires internet service providers to block objectionable content and keep long-term records of traffic:

“The government-controlled internet service provider Ooredoo restricted the expression of views via the internet and censored the internet for political, religious, and pornographic content through a proxy server, which monitored and blocked websites, email, and chatrooms.”

Religious restrictions

Where freedom of belief is concerned, Qatar is less restrictive than some Arab states but is scarcely a model to be emulated. Here are some key points from reports by the US State Department and the International Humanist and Ethical Union:

  • Islam is the state's religion. The law also recognised Christianity and Judaism but non-Abrahamic faiths are not allowed to have places of worship.

  • Converting from Islam to another religion is considered apostasy and therefore a capital offence, though no actual executions have been recorded.

  • The law provides a prison sentence of up to seven years for defaming, desecrating, or committing blasphemy against Islam, Christianity, or Judaism (though the law appears not to be enforced where Judaism is concerned). 

  • The law criminalises proselytising on behalf of any religion other than Islam, with punishments of up to 10 years in prison. Foreigners suspected of proselytising are liable to be deported.

  • The government regulates publication, importation, and distribution of all religious books and materials, but permits individuals and religious institutions to import holy books and other religious items for personal or congregational use.

  • Non-Muslims are subject to sharia law in cases of child custody.

  • Muslim convicts can shorten their prison sentence by memorising the Quran while in jail.

  • Christian congregations are not allowed to advertise religious services or use religious symbols visible to the public, such as outdoor crosses.

  • Christian groups must register with the foreign ministry if they want to operate a bank account. In order to register, they must have 1,500 members in Qatar. Unregistered groups can be disbanded at any time and their members can be deported.