Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the emir of Qatar, speaks on December 19 in Kuala Lumpur during a summit of Muslim-majority nations. (Mohd Rasfan/AFP via Getty Images)

Rights Groups Condemn Qatari Crackdown on Free Speech

Doha’s move clears way for heavy fines against people who disseminate information that authorities consider untrue or prejudiced

Amnesty International and other human rights groups have condemned an amendment to Qatar’s law regulating speech, which, according to Amnesty, targets expressions seen as having the “intent to harm national interests, stir up public opinion or infringe on the social system or public system of the state.”

Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the emir of Qatar, made the amendment official on January 8, although it was announced by the state only on January 19.

Violations are punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine equivalent to about $25,000.

On January 18, Qatar’s semiofficial daily al-Raya published an article about the amendment with a synopsis that, while representative of the legislation, did not quote the exact phrasing.

“It is deeply troubling that the Qatari emir is passing legislation that can be used to silence peaceful critics. Qatar’s authorities should be repealing such laws in line with their international legal obligations, not adding more of them,” Amnesty said in a press release.

The amendment falls on the backdrop of other laws curbing free speech. In 1979, the government passed strict regulations affecting publications, and in 2014, it adopted laws limiting online speech.

Gulf countries are not known for their tolerance of free and open speech.

“Whether through bots and malicious attempts to gin up controversy, lies or to heap on criticism, or just through regular people piling on and recirculating so-called fake-news or negative stories, the whole Gulf region – and beyond – has seen the rise of social media as a new vector of attack,” David Roberts, assistant professor at King’s College London, who specializes in international security and Gulf politics, told The Media Line.

Hiba Zayadin, a researcher in the MENA division at Human Rights Watch, says that when it comes to freedom of expression, the situation in Gulf countries significantly worsened after the 2011 Arab Spring, a series of regional revolts in which citizens tried to overthrow autocratic rulers.

“Gulf rulers responded by becoming increasingly repressive to make sure similar protests don’t sweep through their own countries and threaten their own rule,” Zayadin told The Media Line. “They did that by cracking down on critics and dissenters and by introducing repressive laws and regulations aimed at shutting down the space for free expression in civil society.”

Zayadin contends that freedom of expression has come under attack since the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, in addition to Egypt, instituted a blockade against Doha in 2017. Bahrain and the UAE passed legislation that made it illegal to publicly express support for Qatar.

Roberts argues that the spat with Qatar has united the latter’s populace and increased internal support for Qatari leaders.

Citizens, he said, are “quite sure… that their state has been subject to unfair, malicious stories for years now, so if some law like [the new speech law] might strengthen the state’s hand, I can imagine many supporting it.”

Rashid, who asked to be described as a “liberal Qatari citizen,” supports the criminalization of certain speech.

“Here in Qatar, we don’t have the freedom of speech that the USA has, but we still enjoy a high level. I’m in favor of punishment for fake news since it does have an effect on people. Just look at your last presidential election,” he told The Media Line, referring to Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential contest.

“The government takes people’s opinions and complaints seriously, and always works to make the people happy here,” Rashid said. “That’s why most of the Qatari people consider the emir an idol of freedom and humbleness.”

According to Reporters without Borders (RSF), 389 journalists were imprisoned around the world last year between January 1 and December 1. Egypt and Saudi Arabia took second and third place, at 34 and 32 jailed journalists, respectively.

RSF says that during the same time frame, of the 57 journalists taken hostage around the world, 56 were in the Middle East.

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