On April 29, 2003, the citizens of Qatar went to the polls and voted overwhelmingly to approve a new constitution — one that guarantees freedom of the press. But 10 years later, the press here still is not free.
The turnout in Qatar for the constitutional referendum in 2003 was 84.3 percent, and of those 98 percent voted in favor of the new constitution. That vote, according to the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s Web site, was a vote by Qataris “to transfer into a new era where they soar high in the horizons of freedom.”
“This new era,” the Web site goes on to say, “is marked with setting up a permanent constitution that upholds personal liberty, safeguards the principle of equal opportunities for all citizens, protects private proprietorship, deems all people equal in rights and duties and prohibits the expulsion of any citizen from the country or preventing him from returning to it. Furthermore, the Constitution creates a free atmosphere whereby all types of expression are allowed and enhances the freedom of press and publication. It likewise enshrines the freedom of religion, worship and conviction for all people and makes the Qatari population the source of powers and legislations to be exercised through an elected legislative council.”
The new constitution had been nearly four years in the making. On July 13, 1999, the emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who had come to power when he overthrew his father in a bloodless coup four years earlier, delivered an address that many Qataris still recall. He said the country would have a constitution that would define individual rights and duties. He even called for a parliament to be elected, something finally scheduled to happen this June, though no campaigning seems to have begun.
It took a drafting committee three years, until July 2, 2002, to deliver to the emir the constitution he envisioned and that ultimately would be ratified by voters. The constitution included 150 articles, including Article 48, which says “press freedom, printing and publishing is assured in accordance with the law.”
“The law” is Law No. 8 of 1979 “On the Press and Publication,” otherwise known as the Press Law. It is the law that 34 years later still governs the Qatar media. For at least five years there has been talk in media circles and reportedly in government about replacing that law with one that recognizes the existence of radio, television and the Internet, and one that provides the real press freedoms promised by the new constitution. But no such replacement has surfaced; perhaps the first elected parliament, or Consultative Assembly, will have a go at a new press law.
The notion of a consultative assembly seems to be a reminder that Qatar remains an absolute monarchy, albeit a constitutional monarchy. The emir may consult with the nationally elected assembly, as he has done for more than a decade with the neighborhood-elected Central Municipal Council, but in the end he is the one who makes law.
The press law in Qatar dates from a time when the Information Ministry had censors sitting in newsrooms, deciding what could be published about this emir’s father and his country. When Sheik Hamad took power in 1995, he abolished the Information Ministry and the notion of censors. Shortly after that, he established Al Jazeera and reportedly does not interfere in its news judgment. In 2008, he brought Northwestern University’s schools of journalism and communication from the United States to Qatar to teach the kind of free-press thinking that surely will shape the Qatari media in the future.
At first glance, the 1979 press law seems draconian, a fact that obviates the need for those government censors. Journalists now self-censor, lest they be accused of violating that press law. In that law, defamation is a criminal matter, not a civil matter as it is in most places.
Article 46 of that old press law says: “The emir of the state of Qatar shall not be criticized and no statement can be attributed to him unless under a written permission from the manger of his office.” That’s pretty clear.
Other articles are not. One passage in Article 47 says it is prohibited to publish “any printed matter that is deemed contrary to the ethics, violates the morals or harms the dignity of the people or their personal freedoms.” Another says it is against the law to publish anything “that may harm the reputation, patrimony or commercial name of any person or any item that may libel him, compel him to pay an amount of money or to provide a utility to a third party or prevents him from exercising his work.”
Rather than try to figure out what those subjectively mean or risk violating them, journalists here often censor themselves and print nothing — not the name of a market caught selling tainted meat, not the name of a hotel where a child drowned, not the name of a person convicted of a crime.
But what draws the most attention, especially from Westerners and especially during the Arab Spring, are other provisions of the press law. Not being allowed to criticize the emir is one such provision, but there are others, including a prohibition on printing anything that “may instigate the overthrow of the regime in the country, cause harm thereto or damage the supreme interest of the state,” or “any propaganda urging to embrace destructive principles,” or any news about the military without permission.
What Westerners forget is that in its early days the United States imposed those same kinds of prohibitions — the press could not criticize the president or Congress at the end of the 18th century — and today you still cannot promote the overthrow of the government.
On this 10th anniversary of the ratification of the Qatari constitution, the old press law badly needs to be modernized, just as most everything else in Qatar has been modernized.
Richard J. Roth is senior associate dean of Northwestern University in Qatar.