(Beirut) – Qatar’s ruler should not approve a draft media law unless loosely worded provisions penalizing criticism of Qatar or neighboring governments are removed, Human Rights Watch said today. The draft law builds in a double standard on free expression that is inconsistent with Qatar’s claims to be a center for media freedom in the region.
The draft law, which the Shura Council, Qatar’s legislative body, approved in June 2012, would be the first change to the country’s media laws since Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani,set up the Doha Center for Media Freedom in 2008 to promote press freedom and quality journalism in Qatar and the region. Although the draft law calls for abolishing criminal penalties for media law violations, the broadly worded provisions of article 53 prohibit publishing or broadcasting information that would “throw relations between the state and the Arab and friendly states into confusion” or “abuse the regime or offend the ruling family or cause serious harm to the national or higher interests of the state.” Violators would face stiff financial penalties of up to 1 million Qatari Riyals (US$275,000).
“Qatar’s commitment to freedom of expression is only as good as its laws, which in this case do not meet the international standards it professes to support.” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of supporting press freedom, this draft media law is a commitment to censorship.”
The case of a poet imprisoned for a year demonstrates the danger to free expression in Qatar, Human Rights Watch said. His next court hearing is scheduled for November 29.
Article 53 complements and reinforces article 134 of Qatar’s penal code, which provides sentences of five years in prison for criticizing the emir. Both the penal code and the proposed media law violate international freedom of speech standards, which protect the right to criticize rulers and government policies.
Al Jazeera, the news network that Sheikh Hamad set up in 1996, has been prominent in reporting many of the popular uprisings in the Middle East since December 2010. However, the draft media law would force Qatar-based journalists to practice the self-censorship that characterizes the state of journalism in many countries in the Gulf region, Human Rights Watch said.
The imprisonment of the Qatari poet Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami since November 2011 provides further evidence of Qatar’s double standard on freedom of expression. On October 22, a judge postponed al-Dheeb’s trial for the fifth time. He faces charges of “inciting the overthrow of the ruling regime,” which carries the death penalty under article 130 of the penal code.
Qatari officials have not made clear the bases for the charges. Al-Dheeb has praised the popular revolutions. In a poem called “Tunisian Jasmine,” which he recited and then uploaded to the internet in January 2011, he expressed support for the uprising there, saying, “We are all Tunisia in the face of repressive coteries,” and criticizing “all Arab governments” as “indiscriminate thieves.” Al-Dheeb previously recited a poem that appeared on the internet in August 2010 and included passages that insulted the emir. In neither instance is there any evidence that he has gone beyond the legitimate exercise of his right to free expression, Human Rights Watch said.
International law is unequivocal on the need for public officials to tolerate greater criticism than ordinary citizens. This distinction serves the public interest by making it harder to suppress debate about issues of governance. Although Qatar has not ratified the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, the United Nations Human Rights Committee has provided authoritative interpretation of the norms of freedom of opinion and expression contained in article 19, making it clear that insulting a public figure does not justify penalties and affirming that all public figures, “including those exercising the highest political authority such as heads of state and government,” are legitimately subject to criticism.
Article 47 of Qatar’s constitution guarantees freedom of expression and opinion “in accordance with the conditions and circumstances set forth in the law,” and Qatar has pledged to respect the right to free expression under article 32 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, to which it is a party.
In the case of al-Dheeb, whose next trial hearing is scheduled for November 29, Human Rights Watch called on Qatar’s state prosecutor to ensure that the conduct of the trial is consistent with international standards on due process and the right to a fair trial, and that he is not prosecuted solely for his exercise of the right to free expression.
“If Qatar is serious about providing regional leadership on media freedom it should remove the problematic provisions from its draft media law and drop all charges against Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami that solely relate to his exercise of free speech,” Stork said.