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As World Cup nears, Qatar and FIFA face fresh scrutiny on press freedom commitments

Exactly one year before the scheduled start of the 2022 football World Cup in Qatar, plainclothes officers from the Gulf state’s Criminal Investigations Department arrested Halvor Ekeland and Lokman Ghorbani, a sports reporter and cameraman respectively for Norwegian state broadcaster NRK, as they were leaving their hotel in the capital of Doha.

The NRK journalists were held for more than 30 hours before being released without charge. But their detention as Qatar ramped up preparations for one of the world’s biggest sporting events raised fresh concerns among rights groups about the Qatari government’s commitment to freedom of expression – and football governing body FIFA’s willingness to hold it to that commitment. 

Ekeland and Ghorbani were arrested on November 21, 2021, after researching living conditions and alleged abuses – including reports of multiple deaths – of the migrant laborers brought in to build stadiums, airports, hotels, roads, and a new city for the World Cup. “We wanted to publish as many stories as possible, and make them as fair and balanced as possible,” Ekeland told CPJ. 

The Qatari government dismisses as “wildly misleading” an estimate that thousands of south Asian migrant workers have died in Qatar in the decade after FIFA’s 2010 announcement awarding Qatar hosting rights.  A Qatari government official told CPJ that improving the health of well-being of foreign workers “remains a top priority,” and that Qatar “has done more than any other country in the region to strengthen the rights of foreign workers over the last decade.”

Qatar’s 2020 labor reforms indeed increased legal protections for foreign workers ahead of the World Cup. However, the government is notoriously sensitive about reports on labor issues on the ground, and the NRK arrests were the latest in a series of journalist detentions going back several years, with a Kenyan blogger and news teams from the BBC and Denmark among those who have been held after reporting on conditions for migrant workers

In a statement after Ekeland and Ghorbani were released, the Qatari government claimed they were “trespassing on private property and filming without a permit.” Ekeland denied this, telling CPJ by video call that the two had been reporting at a migrant camp with the permission of the camp’s manager. He also said their equipment was seized and they were interrogated about their whereabouts and meetings after their arrest. They were brought before a public prosecutor once before being transferred to a cell with 12 other people. The room was so tiny that “if you laid down you would hit a wall or someone’s head,” said Ekeland. 

Ekeland and Ghorbani were detained six months after Kenyan activist Malcolm Bidali, who was taken into custody after writing for a year under an assumed name on the website of the advocacy group Migrant Rights. In a call with CPJ, Bidali said he had started covering working conditions for migrants after becoming frustrated with his accommodations – sleeping six to a cramped room – while working as a security guard in Doha. 

Bidali was taken to the Ministry of Interior’s State Security Bureau on May 4, 2021. There, two plainclothes Qatari state security officers and a uniformed officer handcuffed him, demanded his social media passwords, and interrogated him about his contacts for hours before putting him in a nine-by-12-foot windowless cell.

“It was solitary confinement,” Bidali said. The lights never went off, the walls were padded, and there was a mattress and pillows on the floor.  After three days of questioning, Bidali said he was forced to sign a typed confession in Arabic, which he was not able to read, while authorities refused his requests for a lawyer. “I said, ‘I know my rights,’ and they said: ‘My friend, you’re with us now, you don’t have any rights,’” Bidali said.

Bidali was transferred to another facility, where he received visits from the Kenyan ambassador and the head of the International Labour Organization in Qatar. He spent 28 days in detention and says he was released after being forced to sign a nondisclosure agreement about his imprisonment. 

After his release, he said authorities ordered him to pay a 25,000 riyal fine (US$6,868) for spreading misinformation and revealing company secrets. Though he wasn’t deported, Bidali returned to Kenya last August. “I realized I couldn’t stay in Qatar anymore because I was on their radar,” said Bidali, who believes he was also the target of a spyware attack about a week before his arrest. A Qatari government official declined to comment on the record about Bidali’s case.

With Bidali’s detention already causing a furor among human rights groups, the November arrests of Ekeland and Ghorbani also came at an embarrassing moment for FIFA, which just a day earlier had issued a press release in which FIFA President Gianni Infantino praised Qatar for “taking real steps” to improve “human rights and workers’ welfare.” 

A FIFA spokesperson told CNN in a statement after the journalists’ arrests that the organization “defends the principles of media freedom,” but also made “note” of Qatar’s claim that they had “knowingly and willfully” violated the law.  A FIFA spokesperson told CPJ that members of the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, the Qatari government entity overseeing the World Cup, had “provided various forms of assistance to the respective journalists” after the arrests.

Ekeland, however, was disappointed by FIFA’S lack of public support for their work and told CPJ he felt the organization blamed them for their arrests.

FIFA’s reaction to the arrests and reports of other human rights violations in Qatar has put the international body in the spotlight over its controversial choice and conciliatory tone toward the World Cup host. According to Andrea Florence, acting director of the advocacy group Sports and Rights Alliance, FIFA has been slow to make human rights, including press freedom, major criteria when awarding the tournaments. She said that FIFA appeared to be advancing human rights on an ad hoc basis to burnish its public image, rather than in partnership with civil society groups.  

“They are trying to build up a more systematic approach, but that needs to be done in close collaboration with civil society and actual victims,” Florence told CPJ by video call. “Otherwise, it reinforces the idea that there is no system. This is a really sensitive and important moment, because it could either work or break.”

The FIFA spokesperson said that the organization was working “with the host country to ensure simplified processes regarding accreditation and filming permits, practical support to and collaborations with journalists traveling to Qatar, as well as appropriate procedures in case journalists are found to transgress certain rules.” 

The spokesperson added that journalists “who feel their rights have been adversely impacted” in connection with the World Cup in Qatar could use the sports organization’s grievance mechanism to file a complaint to FIFA.

However, in a country where state censorship and self-censorship abound, Qatar’s arrests of journalists are just one aspect of its approach to press freedom. Since being awarded the World Cup, Qatar has passed a cybercrime law and a “false news” law, which CPJ has warned could be used to target journalists. 

In addition, the country’s criminalization of homosexuality has curtailed coverage of LGBTQ rights. In 2018, Human Rights Watch criticized the removal of multiple articles on topics involving the LGBTQ community from the Doha edition of The New York Times. (A Qatari official told Human Rights Watch that while the government had “no input” into the content of the Times’ international edition, “all media distributors are expected to comply with the local cultural standards and expectations of their readers and the community.”)

Asked for comment by CPJ on its press freedom record, a Qatari government official said in an email that the country respects opposing and critical views and “is committed to upholding its unique standard in the region of promoting and protecting freedom of expression.” The official said that the false news law passed in 2020 was an attempt to protect against “major, coordinated hacking and disinformation operations trying to fracture the region,” and that the law “is not open to abuse and will not limit expression, speech or reporting in or about Qatar.”

Florence said that FIFA has a central role to play. “Sports has big leverage. The only way that [FIFA] is using that leverage at the moment is to protect themselves from any negative impact or communication,” she said.

“If they said that [they were] only awarding the games if journalists are able to report freely without repression from the government, or if a repressive law that exists ends, that could have a positive impact.”

For his part, Ekeland is hopeful that the World Cup could lead to an expansion of rights in Qatar. “I know that there have been a lot of changes made in Qatar, at least on paper,” he told CPJ in reference to the new laws setting minimum wages and limiting work hours for laborers. “The problem is implementation.”  

Still, the arrest has left Ekeland doubtful about whether reporters will be able to cover the World Cup freely. “I don’t know what to say to journalists, in terms of don’t do this, because I don’t know what the problem [was],” he said. “I really don’t know why they were detaining us for 32 hours and took us to the public prosecution and [were] looking through our footage.” 

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