For several years now, the Guardian’s Associate Editor Seumas Milne has been attending the annual ‘Al Jazeera Forum’ in Doha, Qatar.
This year the event was held between March 12th -14th at the Sheraton Hotel in Doha and according to the advance publicity, its aim was to “explore the significance of the revolutions and unrest sweeping the Arab world and examine their impact on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict”.
Milne spoke at a plenary session entitled “Leaks: the future of journalism” along with several other interesting figures. Two other Guardian employees were also among the 500 conference attendees flown out to Doha by Al Jazeera for this all expenses paid event. Matt Wells and Francesca Panetta produced a subsequently published podcast on the subject, including some blandly sycophantic coverage of the Al Jazeera TV station.
Al Jazeera produced video interviews with some of the conference participants, including Seumas Milne who was in clear self-congratulatory mode as he talked about the Guardian-Al Jazeera joint project which became known as the ‘Palestine Papers’.
Milne describes his newspaper as one engaged in “pushing boundaries” due to the fact that, like Al Jazeera, it is not a “profit maximizing” organization and therefore enjoys “freedoms that other media organisations don’t have”. However, like Al Jazeera itself, the Guardian is extremely selective on the subject of where exactly it chooses to push boundaries and exercise its “freedoms” and for both these organisations, the subject of human rights in Qatar is a self-censored no-go area.
Ironically, even as Egyptian, Tunisian and other bloggers and social media revolutionaries were being feted at the Qatar government-funded Al Jazeera Forum, a Qatari blogger was being held incommunicado by that same government, prompting Amnesty International to launch an appeal to its members to act for his release. Whilst the gentleman concerned does not, according to his blog, seem to be my idea of a human rights activist, his incarceration is symptomatic of the lack of media and internet freedom prevalent in Qatar.
“Al Jazeera is hailed as an epitome of free media in the Arab world and beyond but critics say its so-called freedom and boldness would actually be put to test when the channel begins covering local issues. Al Jazeera has, of late, been at the receiving end on Qatari social networking sites for focusing attention on the outside world and ignoring issues in the country of its birth. Its coverage of events in neighbouring Bahrain and Oman has also left many viewers wondering if it is really objective in its treatment of developments in those countries .Praised the world over for its boldness, the channel lacks the guts to cover sensitive issues in Qatar, for instance, say critics. Al Jazeera is also accused of practicing double standards. A website which sometime ago talked of some appointment in the channel’s administration had to be closed down and its owners were taken to court. So the local Arabic and English-language newspapers score over Al Jazeera in that they sometimes show the guts and can cover issues like corruption. Al Jazeera is thus not a good example at all while discussing media freedom in the Qatari context, say critics.”
International organisations monitoring press freedom have also criticized the archaic Qatari laws which make criticism of religion, the army and the royal family punishable offences and the fact that many of the journalists working in Qatar are foreigners who, by law, cannot hold citizenship and are therefore very vulnerable to state pressure. As pointed out by ‘Reporters without Borders’, Qatari journalists are also at a distinct disadvantage due to the fact that all trade unions are illegal in that country. A new press law was promised by the end of 2010, but so far has failed to come into effect.
One would think that both as a journalist and a life-time socialist, as well as a person claiming that investigative reporting performs a public service, Seumas Milne and his Guardian colleagues would have been keen to take on the subject of the dire situation in which Qatari journalists and bloggers operate. Apparently not.
Neither has the Guardian paid very much attention to the subject of human rights in general in Qatar, despite some of its staff paying fairly frequent visits there. The 2010 Amnesty International report on Qatar makes for grim reading and exposes institutionalized discrimination and violence against women, prison sentences for ‘insulting Islam’, continued illegality of homosexuality, severe abuses of the rights of migrants and continued use of cruel punishment such as stoning, flogging and the death penalty. In 2010 Qatar rejected a series of recommendations made by the UN Human Rights Council to correct some of these human rights abuses.
And yet, when one takes a look at the ‘Qatar’ page in the Middle East section of ‘Comment is Free’, one finds that a grand total of sixteen articles on Qatar-related subjects have appeared there since August 2006, of which only one – not written by a Guardian journalist – can be classified as critical.
Now of course all this raises an awful lot of chicken and egg-type questions. One wonders why Guardian journalists are so keen to take part in a conference celebrating revolution against dictators and what they perceive as a ‘Arab Spring’ of democracy in the Arab world which is generously and exclusively funded by an equally non-democratic hereditary dictatorship which controls every aspect of life in a country rated ‘not free’ by Freedom House.
One ponders as to why their ‘brave new journalism’ does not extend to investigative reporting on the subject of the many human rights abuses taking place right outside the front door of the luxury hotel in which they were wined and dined by the regime perpetrating those abuses.
One also asks how these ‘liberal progressives’ manage to reconcile their ever-increasing collaboration with a government-owned and funded TV station which provides a regular slot for one of the most offensive racist and homophobic hate preachers on the circuit – Yusuf al Qaradawi – and if they privately raised any eyebrows at the fact that the ‘Qatar Foundation’ – funded by the same government – supplies student scholarships in his name.
One may even wonder if the Guardian management has any qualms about accepting luxury all expenses paid trips for some of its staff from a dictatorship which also funds terrorist organizations which murder innocent civilians in another part of the world, for whilst there may be no legal grounds for refusing such favours, there certainly should be moral ones.
The fact that yet again the intrepid investigative reporter Seumas Milne finds himself suddenly struck by a distinct lack of curiosity whilst in Qatar actually shows that contrary to his claims in the above video, he and his newspaper are far from being graced with “freedoms that other media organisations do not have”.
Not only are they in hock to a hereditary dictatorship of the type they repeatedly claim to abhor and oppose on grounds of principle, but they are also puppets to their own political ideology which obliges them to sell out any remaining vestige of integrity for the sake of ‘the cause’ and makes “pushing boundaries” no more than an empty mantra when coming from their mouths.