Mysterious shutdown plagues popular news site in Qatar

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It was 4:30 am on Nov. 30, and Omar Chatriwala and Shabina Khatri were on holiday visiting relatives in Detroit, when the husband-and-wife team who run the Doha News started receiving notifications the site had been blocked in Qatar. Users on Facebook and Twitter had begun posting they could no longer access the portal. A colleague in Doha called Khatri to confirm the country’s two internet service providers, Ooredoo and Vodafone, had choked access to users. Qatar’s most popular local news platform—an engaging mix of national news, expat issues, and local culture—was only accessible to those with private networks or unfiltered corporate internet.

Chatriwala and Khatri quickly moved the site’s URL from Dohanews.co to Doha.News. Within hours, the new location also had been blocked. In the days since, staff have requested an explanation from Ooredoo, Vodafone, the Communications Regulatory Authority, the Government Communications Office, and Qatar’s National Information Security Centre. No plausible answer has been forthcoming. Instead, the team has been asked to contact government officials over unexplained “licensing” issues.

One possible impetus for the shutdown: A guest piece written this summer by an unnamed Qatari male who described the challenges of being gay in an Islamic state. In a country where homosexuality is prohibited by law, the article attracted both praise and condemnation, with 222 comments either defending the writer’s bravery or reiterating the belief that Islam views homosexuality as a sin. Three days after posting the opinion piece, the Doha News published a reply by another Qatari author, “We do not tolerate homosexuality in Qatar.” The second post attracted 278 comments.

The sudden inaccessibility of a local news site would not ordinarily attract international media attention. Yet for seven years, the Doha News has been a significant outlier in Qatar: the site is the only reliable source of daily information for residents. Its journalists have mapped the country’s ambitious growth, local miscarriages of justice, labor rights problems, and preparations to host the World Cup in 2022.

The Doha News typically runs about four stories a day, including local news, features and follow-ups on international media coverage of Qatar. The site’s popularity peaks around issues such as the cost and availability of alcohol and the battle against daily auto traffic. Stories detailing labor rights abuses among the country’s predominantly South Asian construction workers, changes to the country’s complicated residency system, and Qatar’s displays of soft power fill a void uncovered by an under-resourced, generally compliant local press.

Equally popular are stories that explain the precarious food supply chain, in which supermarkets sometimes run out of chicken or milk. A straightforward tone also offers polite humor on entrepreneurial attempts to commercialize local culture such as the introduction of chocolate flavored camel milk or the opening of a luxury mall with VIP valet parking. Editors also gently admonish users who stray off topic on comment boards, or attack each other.

A number of articles have distinguished the Doha News from its competitors. Its journalists were first to break news of the fire in May 2012 that killed 13 children and four adults at a nursery in the Villagio shopping mall in Doha. As witnesses shared pictures of the disaster, the Doha News gained 100,000 followers by providing a chronology of events. Since 2012, the site has also provided a commentary on the grief of the families affected by the fire and their ongoing quest for justice. The coverage of the fire earned the Doha News praise from the BBC and the Centre for Media Freedom.

In June, shortly before leaving Qatar, assistant Doha News editor Peter Kovessy was detained for one night after police investigated a complaint about a story he wrote in 2015. No charges were filed, and he was released by the public prosecutor’s office. The incident was an isolated case where Doha News staff fell foul of Qatar’s opaque media laws. “Ultimately, it wasn’t that horrible an ordeal, compared to what a lot of journalists go through around the world,” says Kovessy, who returned to Canada last summer after three years at Doha News. “But it underlines the fact that there is still a local segment [of] the population that believes that certain critical controversial subjects should not be discussed in public.”

In recent days, the closure of the Doha News has been covered by international news organizations, including the BBC, Reuters, and the Associated Press. In a statement, Amnesty International Deputy Director for Global Voices James Lynch pointed to the irony of the decision to block a news site in a country that already hosts several large broadcasting facilities and the Doha Center for Media Freedom (a nonprofit that promotes quality journalism in Qatar and the Middle East). “This is an alarming setback for freedom of expression in the country,” he says. “As the nation that founded the Al Jazeera media network, and which hosts a center dedicated to promoting global media freedom, Qatar should be at the forefront of those championing freedom of the press.”

A history of censorship is deeply embedded in the media landscape of the Gulf region and the wider Middle East. Journalists are instinctively nervous about coverage of religion, sex, and politics. Business reporting is closely scrutinized in countries where rulers and powerful families own or administer large commercial interests. Lawyers are often reluctant to defend aggressive reporting in countries where media laws are murky and journalists can easily be fired and even jailed.

In 2015, the editor in chief of the popular Qatari Arabic daily newspaper, Al Sharq, was forced to resign and several journalists were fired after the newspaper published a photo of a woman’s hands covered in henna drawings depicting scenes from the Kama Sutra. The editor, Jabar Al-Harmi, was reinstated but resigned again last month in the wake of criticism over a tweet about Saudi Arabia, in which he praised Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani’s decision to increase public sector salaries. The comment was viewed as derisive towards Saudi Arabia, where harsh austerity measures have seen government salaries reduced by 20 percent.

In 2010, Jamal Khashoggi, the editor of Saudi Arabia’s leading Arabic newspaper, Al Watan, resigned after criticising the austere interpretation of Islam enforced by the kingdom’s religious police. In 2009, Emarat al Youm, a daily Arabic newspaper based in the United Arab Emirates, had its print run and website suspended for 20 days by the National Media Council after it lost a libel case. The paper’s editor in chief and publisher were each fined $5,500.

In the days since the Doha News was blocked, Ooredoo CEO Waleed Al-Sayed and Vodafone CEO Ian Grey released separate but equally cloudy statements confirming both networks had blocked the site. They asked Chatriwala and Khatri to contact the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Economy and Commerce. “I am very aware that the authorities in Qatar are wary of describing this as censorship,” says Chatriwala. “But it is what it looks like.”

Since the Doha News went offline, hundreds of users have posted sympathetic comments on its social media channels. In a country where media launches are lavish, the effect of blocking a local news website valued by residents has generated empathy for a local underdog. Chatriwala announced over the weekend that the Doha News, which has since diverted traffic to Medium.com and Apple and Android apps, was scaling back its publishing schedule. “In the interest of protecting our team,” he wrote, “we will be reducing the number of articles we publish until we can resolve the problem and get dohanews.co unblocked.”

The Doha News began in 2009 as a Twitter account curating news about Qatar, then became a Tumblr blog before taking its current form in 2012. At the time, Chatriwala was working at Al Jazeera, and Khatri, who previously worked at The Wall Street Journal and the Detroit Free Press, was freelancing in Qatar. Then, as now, Qatar’s print and broadcast media was dominated by state-owned entities like Al Jazeera English, Al Jazeera Arabic, Qatar Television, and privately owned newspapers such as The Peninsula or Gulf Times.

The Gulf state’s print media rely on local advertising and government sector subscriptions (piles of unread newspapers can be seen in ministry offices across the country). Reporters cover Qatar by dutifully attending government press conferences, glitzy product launches, and restaurant openings. An unregulated relationship between advertisers and journalists often sees press releases turned into stories alongside pool photographs. The papers maximize profits using syndicated content for foreign coverage, op-eds, and features. 

The Doha News launched with a low-key approach to chronicling the country’s building boom, sporting ambitions, and arts initiatives. A weekly culture round-up offered advice and tips to expatriates; guides explained what religious concerns non-Muslims should be aware of during Ramadan; and the team announced dates of important public holidays and new Qatari legislation.

“We always try and frame what we do through ethical coverage and credible reporting,” Chatriwala says. “The concept was never investigative or political. It was always about how people navigate daily life here, and we try to help them navigate the country’s rules and regulations. Some our most important stories are those about where to eat—the opening of Cheesecake Factory, for example. We also debunk false news, such as rumors of a tiger roaming around Education City [a purpose-built neighborhood hosting local branches of international universities such as Georgetown and Northwestern]. When there was an actual tiger on Doha Expressway, we covered it.”

The Doha News has 10 reporters and editors (Chatriwala declined to say how many are full-time); a handful of volunteers also help when available, and students from the journalism program at Northwestern University have served as interns. The site, which generates around a million pageviews a month, publishes sponsored and branded content in addition to original reporting, and sells digital ads based on a breakdown of its audience size and demographics. It has 344,000 Twitter followers and nearly 300,000 Facebook “likes.”

In many respects, the Doha News’ expansion mirrors Qatar’s. In the last decade, the country’s population has jumped from 800,000 to 2.5 million. Abundant natural gas reserves have transformed a previously sleepy city state, whose primary trade was pearling, into a fast-moving panoply of skyscrapers, malls, museums, roads, schools, hospitals, and metro lines.

Victoria Scott, a former BBC journalist and Daily Telegraph blogger, moved to Qatar six years ago and joined the Doha News in 2012. She returned to the UK in 2015 and is now the site’s editor at large. “I was hugely impressed by what they were doing,” she says. “I don’t think any government organization in Qatar was used to being questioned by journalists. There was sometimes confusion on an official level, but we also found government spokespeople to be interested and encouraging.”

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Burhan Wazir is an award-winning journalist and editor at Apolitical.co. He is a former Head of Opinion at Al Jazeera English and previously worked at The Observer and The Times of London.