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Gulf Guide - Qatar
Gulf Guide - Qatar

Illustration: Marcelle Louw for GIJN

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Chapter 13 – Reporting Guide for Qatar

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These tips were provided by Vani Saraswathi, a former Qatar-based journalist and associate editor for Migrant-Rights.org.

Media Environment

While Qatar is home to the Al Jazeera network, the global satellite television news network based in the nation’s capital, Doha, there is little or no tolerance for critical reporting within the country.

Overall, there is very little criticism of the government or the ruling family in the local media, with only occasional critical pieces around municipal council elections. Doha News was the only independent media in the country until it was blocked — the excuse given for the block was a lack of proper licensing — forcing its original owners/editors to sell. In 2017, it came under new management, and even though it has since toned down its critical reporting, it does provide a welcome relief from the seven newspapers in the country that practice extreme censorship. Qatar hasn’t issued many new media licenses in years, apart from one for Al Rayyan TV in May 2012, and, more recently, it allowed journalists at Doha News to receive accreditation. While online platforms do exist, the controversial 2014 cybercrime law makes independent operation difficult. In 2020, Qatar amended its penal code to include its “false news” law, making offenses punishable by up to five years in prison or a nearly $28,000 fine.

The three English and four Arabic newspapers published in the country all practice self-censorship, and any reporting on migrant labor issues is done without critical analysis or background. However, because the publications have access to court hearings and government releases, those brief reports – often reprinting government PR verbatim – can be the seed for further investigations.

Almost all English-language journalists — and most Arabic-language journalists — are migrants themselves, hence they work in an environment of intimidation, with the fear of being deported or jailed. Many of these journalists come with rich experience and good training, so if you are a journalist working for foreign media and visiting the country, working with them can be helpful. Just make sure you have the proper clearance for filming in public places by contacting the Director of Publications.

The most challenging aspect of reporting in Qatar, apart from a great degree of self-censorship, is this cybercrime provision (translation courtesy of law firm Al Tamimi & Co.) that targets journalists:

“Provisions on so-called ‘content crimes’ that make it illegal to publish ‘false news.’ These terms are not defined, making it unclear what content would land local journalists and social media users in trouble. Therefore news agencies, social media users, and journalists must be careful to verify the source of the news before broadcasting it to the public in order to avoid contravening the law.”

Qatar World Press Freedom Index Ranking

Qatar ranked 128th in the Reporters Sans Frontières’ 2021 World Press Freedom Index. Image: Screenshot

Yet, compared to the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, Qatar offers more latitude for journalists, ranking 128th in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index, higher than any other neighboring Gulf nation except Kuwait. Because of greater latitude afforded international NGOs and trade unions, covering trafficking and forced labor is typically much easier in Qatar than in other Gulf nations.

With the approach of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, hosted in Qatar, there has been a renewed focus on the human rights of migrants in the country. Recent reports on workers’ deaths in Qatar led to protests and calls for a boycott. These reports are indeed critical in highlighting the abuse of workers, but it is equally important to ensure that data and statistics are not misinterpreted and sensationalized to the extent it overshadows rather pressing issues of exploitative labor migration. Desk research should include perusing both media and academic reports from origin countries, often in non-English languages, that are more nuanced, and address more effectively the reasons why trafficking and forced labor happens.

However, it is important to keep in mind that projects connected to the World Cup employ only a fraction of all workers in the country, and there is economic growth that will persist beyond 2022, which will be dependent on migrant labor. Any reporting on the World Cup must not narrowly link workers’ rights with one event.

In the run-up to the Cup, sectors that will see growth and fresh recruitment are hospitality, security, cleaning and related facilities maintenance. This would be a move away from the construction sector that has been the most reported upon until now. Many of these sectors also recruit from newer origin countries from east and west Africa. These workers may arrive without the knowledge or support of a migrant community back home or at the destination, and also hail from countries that do not yet have strong outbound migration policies or bi-lateral agreements with Qatar (and other GCC states).

These populations, in particular, are vulnerable to trafficking and forced labor.

These sectors also have a different model of recruitment and employment, and these workers are more public-facing. This could be an opportunity for more in-depth reporting and more varied testimonies.

Finding and Pursuing Stories

Some ways to find stories include:

  • The Qatari government periodically releases figures from the Grievances Committee, which takes up cases on exit permits.
  • The US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report contains details that are not otherwise publicly available due to the close collaboration between the governments, and mutual interests.
  • In 2017, Qatar set up the National Committee for Combating Human Trafficking, which was supposed to release annual reports. However, there is no website yet available.
  • The Ministry of Administrative, Labor, and Social Affairs maintains a blacklist of companies that are in violation of Qatari laws. Many of these violations may involve trafficking, even if they are not categorized as such. This blacklist, however, is not publicly available.
  • Trafficking cases, except for those involving female domestic workers, can be identified when there is a complaint from a group of workers. Such reporting is not available in local media, but can be found in media reports in countries of origin.
  • Some of the origin country embassies are more forthcoming (e.g. Philippines, Nepal) than others in sharing figures on trafficked, stranded, and distressed workers.
  • It is important to understand what constitutes trafficking and forced labor to identify cases that come up in the country. Unions operating in countries of origin — such as SARTUC, GEFONT, BWI — can be used for identifying cases of trafficking. Contract substitution, working hours longer than contracted without overtime, deductions, and curtailed mobility are all indicators of forced labor.
  • The ILO office in Qatar is fairly media-friendly, but as a UN agency, it will refrain from pointed criticism of the government.

Interviews and Meetings

You can find workers gathering on Friday, the only day off for lower-income workers, on the Corniche, in souqs (not Souq Waqif) near the Al Fardan exchange bus terminus, outside the Muntazah park, and at the Lulu mall in Al Khor.

Companies that provide accommodation for lower-income migrant workers use facilities outside of the city. These labor camps are anywhere from 10 to 25 kilometers (six to 16 miles) outside the city center.

Labour City, Asian Town, and more remote areas of the Sanaya (industrial area) are where you can find workers after hours or on weekends. These areas are fairly well-connected by the Mowasalat bus service. Taking a bus ride from the main terminus in the city to these areas would give you an opportunity to meet and interact with workers; the religious complexes on weekends are also a good place to meet workers.

Keep in mind that workers living in these areas are ones with fairly decent employment. There are also camps off the grid — which are more difficult to access — in areas without water or drainage connections, that depend on water and septic tanks.

Here are some other tips to follow while visiting a camp:

  • Go with someone familiar with the area.
  • All of these areas (including the religious sites) are subject to extreme surveillance – including CCTV, plainclothes police, and regular police patrol, so caution is advised.
  • If you are a female reporter, there is a good chance you will be stopped immediately upon arrival.
  • Don’t carry heavy equipment that makes you an easy target. (Several visiting journalists have been detained in Qatar.)
  • On weekdays, loitering outside embassies or in cafeterias in the neighborhood are good ways of connecting to workers.
  • The health centers near the Sanaya (Industrial Area) and emergency care departments at the main hospital are all places frequented by migrant workers.
  • Domestic workers are now able to file complaints at the MADLSA offices in the Dafna area, opposite the City Center mall. The Philippines Overseas Labor Office is also nearby. The back roads, and city center, are places where workers congregate.

Note that TikTok and Facebook are particularly popular with workers, and many share their stories on these platforms for better reach.

General Reporting Tips

  • If a worker is willing to speak on record, make sure you get his/her informed consent, in a language he/she understands.
  • Respect and protect the privacy of workers. Revealing their faces or their Qatar ID number is best avoided.
  • One way of reporting a story without jeopardizing the worker’s safety is to report from the perspective of his/her family and embassy.
  • You can access the detention center if you have permission from a social worker or family member.

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