Qatar’s ruler seems to take a step back in the defence of freedom of expression. The country prepares to approve a media law loosely worded on penalties against criticism of the government; if approved, the law will contrast Qatar’s claims to be a centre for media freedom in the region.
“Qatar’s commitment to freedom of expression is only as good as its laws. In this case it does 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.”
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.
However, the draft law, which the Shura Council approved in June 2012, is a first alarming change to the country’s media laws – enforced by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani when he set up the Doha Center for Media Freedom in 2008 to promote press freedom. Although the draft law calls for abolishing criminal penalties for media law violations, the broadly worded article 53 prohibits 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 and higher interests of the state.”
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. In practice once enforced, the two articles would be enough to force Qatar-based journalists to practice the self-censorship that characterizes the state of journalism in many countries in the Gulf region, said Human Rights Watch.
The imprisonment of the Qatari poet Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami since November 2011 provides 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.
“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,” Mr. Stork said.
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 of the Convention, which makes it clear that insulting a public figure does not justify penalties.