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Fact check: Are press in World Cup host Qatar truly free?

November 18, 2022

The host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup portrays itself as an open nation where media may work "freely without interference." But DW's fact check shows that this is not the case.

Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup media center in Doha: Men check mobile phones
Qatari officials established 'red lines' for coverage that strays from soccer, critics sayImage: KARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images

A journalist is reporting live on Danish television when a golf cart pulls up and security officials place a hand in front of the camera. The image goes black. "Mister, you invited the whole world to come here. Why can't we film? It's a public place," the TV reporter can be heard saying.

This was the experience of a Rasmus Tantholdt and the TV2 camera team just a few days ago while reporting at the World Cup in Qatar. The footage continues, showing Tantholdt presenting media accreditation to the officials and responding to their threats to destroy the camera. 

Qatari authorities later apologized for the incident. Regardless, it does raise the question: Can media report freely in Qatar during the World Cup?

Claim: The government has been saying media are free in Qatar, including in a recent tweet by the national World Cup committee: "Thousands of journalists report from Qatar freely without interference each year." 

DW fact check: False

Based on DW's research, the state does interfere with media coverage in Qatar. The very legal framework sets limitations on what journalists may cover.

This includes a 1979 press law that prohibits criticism of the emir and bans coverage of topics including "anything that may endanger the safety of the government."

The International Federation of Journalists also points to a penal code revision from 2020 that "makes any spreading of fake news or rumors subject to very heavy fines and up to five years' jail term," as described by Pamela Moriniere of the trade association.

Journalists seeking accreditation for the World Cup must agree to not film or photograph in "residential properties, private businesses and industrial zones," as the permit's terms and conditions state. Government buildings, hospitals and religious locations are off-limits to reporters as well.

Those terms clearly allude "to sensitive areas where journalists have covered violations of migrant worker rights in the past," the press freedoms group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) wrote in a statement.

Nepali workers at the Lusail Stadium in Doha wear masks against the dust and heat
Nepali workers were among the thousands who built Lusail Stadium for the World CupImage: Hassan Ammar/AP/dpa/picture alliance

In fact, RSF ranked Qatar No. 119 of 180 countries on its 2022 Press Freedoms Index. "We can comfortably say that press freedoms are not safe and are not protected in Qatar," said Jonathan Dagher, head of RSF's Middle East desk.

Qatar ranks higher than most of its Middle Eastern neighbors on the list, which, Dagher said, reflects the fact that no journalists are in long-term imprisonment there and that some degree of media pluralism does exist.

"This does not mean in any way that press freedoms in Qatar can be described as 'good,'" he said.

'Arrested for reporting'

"Journalists want to report beyond the matches," Moriniere said. "We have heard already of situations where journalists have been arrested for reporting on migrant workers," she added. "We're quite concerned about that."

In late 2021, for example, two Norwegian journalists were arrested while reporting on conditions of guest workers during World Cup construction.

A similar fate befell Florian Bauer, a journalist for public television in Germany who has worked in Qatar for over a decade. In 2015, when the Qatari government refused to grant permits allowing media coverage, the German team went ahead anyway and was filming in an industrial zone, including being invited by workers into their homes, when they were detained by Qatar's intelligence service.

"We were interrogated for over 14 hours, got brought in in front of the public prosecutor and weren't allowed to leave the country for over five days," Bauer said. "The German embassy had to convince the foreign minister of Qatar to actually let us leave the country," he added.

This past September, Bauer was again the subject of scrutiny in Qatar. He said he and the camera team had driven to an industrial area when he noticed that they were being shadowed by agents from Qatar's intelligence service. "That's what I call intimidation," he said.

Dagher said RSF had also received reports of journalists saying they felt they were under surveillance or being followed in Qatar.

"There are certain topics that are red lines," Dagher said. "There's a lot of self-censorship."

Post-World Cup concerns

In an interview with Sky News after the incident a few days ago, Danish television reporter Tantholdt reflected that in the end the crew's camera was safe and they were allowed to carry on, though he had not expected to be confronted during such a noncontroversial recording.

"To me, it also shows how Qatar is when there's not a World Cup going on," he said, expressing concern over the situation for reporters after the tournament has ended.

People in front of a FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 sign in Doha ahead of the World Cup
Journalists and experts worry about the state of media in Qatar after the World Cup endsImage: Marko Djurica/REUTERS

Dagher also reflected on the overarching implications. "While we disagree that journalists can work in Qatar without interference, we can acknowledge that certain steps have been taken," he said. "We hope that these steps will be taken all the way, and that they will stay there after the World Cup."

Edited by: Arnd Riekmann, Milan Gagnon

Ines Eisele contributed to reporting.