Muzzling the media, Qatar style

Greg Wilesmith and Eric Campbell went head-on with the heavies for ABC TV’s Foreign Correspondent.

Sometimes the planets align in capitals — FIFA, FBI, IRS. And in headlines — Financial Scandal, Football Execs Arrested, Bribery, Fraud, Racketeering, Investigations into World Cups.

Bribery claims about the 2022 tournament won by Qatar, the world’s biggest gas exporter — making Qataris the world’s richest people — have dogged FIFA for years. Now they’ll be investigated, again, but this time by Swiss police and the FBI. But even if proved could Qatar be be forced to relinquish the Cup? Seems unlikely because tens of billions of dollars have been spent already. But not on most of the manual workers.

Nepalese workers in an overcrowded hostel in Doha. Photo: Greg Wilesmith

Nepalese workers in an overcrowded hostel in Doha. Photo: Greg Wilesmith

Can’t say we weren’t warned. Filming a Foreign Correspondent program in Qatar, home of the world’s richest citizens, would be challenging. Especially one which featured the lack of rights of workers employed on a massive building program for the 2022 World Cup. Cameras in the streets would attract immediate attention and probably arrest. Video would be seized and probably erased. All in all an A-grade nightmare.

This was the consensus of a range of journalists, camera people, human rights specialists and others who have visited Qatar in recent years. Hardly surprising when you think about it. Qatar is a mass of contradictions. A tightly controlled sliver of Arabia, governed by a royal family, absent of any form of democracy — and yet with extraordinary financial muscle and overweening ambition to build a mini-Manhattan on the desert peninsula.

For that, the Qataris who number fewer than 300,000 will need several million labourers, mostly sourced from south Asia and paid a pittance. Having somehow inveigled the footballing gnomes of Zurich, also known as FIFA, into awarding Qatar right to stage the 2022 World Cup — now the subject of a corruption investigation by Swiss police — the stadia are now being built apace, along with the hotels and apartments and underground rail systems that will be needed for the fans.

As with the Olympics though the honour of hosting the World Cup carries with it an obligation to allow unrestricted reporting of the organisation of the tournament as well as ultimately, the games. It’s about time FIFA reminded the Qatari government that by bidding for the spectacular sporting event, and inviting the world to attend, that it inevitably attracts interest from international media — and not just those focussed on who kicked which ball to whom.

A BBC team, having been invited to inspect the living quarters of workers building  World Cup stadia, decided that to balance out the “official” tour they ought go on an “unofficial” tour of the backstreets of Doha. Big mistake. They were arrested and held for two nights, interrogated, equipment was seized and their vision erased.

Reporter Mark Lobell’s account embarrassed not just Qatar but FIFA too which now feels compelled to “investigate”. Perhaps the most sinister aspect was that the BBC team were under government security surveillance from the time they arrived.

A German public television team also found themselves in strife because they’d been doing what journalists do — interviewing people, namely workers in one of the many industrial areas in the outer reaches of the capital Doha.

One of the German channels, WDR described the incident this way: “We were arrested while shooting with workers in the Qatari capital, Doha, then interrogated by the State Security and only released after 14 hours. The WDR employees were not allowed to leave Qatar for five days. The camera equipment, laptops and personal mobile phones were confiscated and returned only with a four-week delay. All data has been deleted and pieces of equipment have been damaged.”

Foreign Correspondent was more fortunate. But then again we’d spent months negotiating the Qatari bureaucratic maze before we landed. One key, it belatedly turned out, was convincing the Qatar News agency that the ABC was a respectable news organisation with a legitimate interest in reporting on preparations for the World Cup – coming soon in just seven years.

Once convinced the QNA then advised Qatari Customs at Hamad International airport that they shouldn’t impound cameras, sound and lighting gear on arrival, as seems to happen regularly to other television crews.

The Doha skyline. Photo: Greg Wilesmith

The Doha skyline. Photo: Greg Wilesmith

Then it was off to QNA office to pick up a filming permit. We’d submitted a lengthy list of requests, mostly uncontroversial. Most it transpired, had been ignored. We’d be allowed to film within the city of Doha, along the seafront pedestrian area known as the Corniche and in West Bay, a construction zone of hotels and apartment buildings and embassies. The list of what we couldn’t do was rather longer …

We were not to film:

  • forbidden and restricted areas
  • officials and government buildings, inside or outside, without official permission
  • we must respect the privacy of individuals and not film them or their possessions without approval
  • comply with Qatari laws and Islamic customs and traditions
  • refrain from damaging Qatari public discipline that might arouse ethnic or religious disturbances
  • disseminate any unconfirmed information or to attain illegally any news.

Great! 1001 ways to get into trouble in no time. Imagine a journalist receiving ‘unconfirmed information’? And what did ‘attain illegally any news’ really mean? No clarification was forthcoming. Sign the pledge, as it was described, or don’t film anything.

It turned out that the filming permit was pretty useless. We figured Souq Wakif, a renovated relic of old Doha — twisting lanes  and small merchants — which has survived the rampaging bulldozers  destroying most of the original city, would not be on the ‘forbidden and restricted’ list.

The police at the souk though didn’t think much of the filming permit. Nor did the souk administrators. Next we applied to film a football match, a World Cup qualifier for the 2018 tournament in Russia. Answer: no.

But of course we went anyway and filmed the game, the souk and many other parts of Qatar to which we weren’t supposed to go. Many long days were spent in the industrial areas of the city where the construction workers labour six days a week, 10-12 hours a day with obligatory overtime, for years on end. Living conditions in their hostels are often squalid.

There was one encounter with policemen puffed up with rage.  We met them near the site of the Al Wakrah stadium, one of many planned stadiums which are being built or renovated. After months of contacts  from Australia and in Qatar, our request to actually film something directly related to the World Cup had been granted. All was going well, we’d had the off-the-record briefing by international public relations people, we’d had the safety briefing, stepped into steel capped boots, put on hard hats and clambered aboard the bus.

Then, a police car swept into the compound and an officious officer began remonstrating — we’d been filming without permission. Someone, it transpired, had seen us filming as we drove along the main road to Al Wakrah. It was a fair cop. We’d been so impressed by the dust storm which had enveloped the area we’d sought to show the sort of conditions that football fans and players might ultimately have to navigate to get to their air conditioned stadia.

Al WaKrah stadium under construction. Photo: Greg Wilesmith

Al WaKrah stadium under construction. Photo: Greg Wilesmith

We proffered the Qatar News Agency filming permit. The policeman was scornful. This was Al Wakrah, not Doha! Then he began quizzing our minders, from the elaborately named Supreme Committee for the Delivery and Legacy of Q2022, the body set up to plan and run the World Cup.

What right did they have to allow us to film anything? After a curious, though entertaining half an hour, with many frantic phone calls to Zurich where the Supreme Committee sheikhs were meeting with FIFA, we were finally free and driven down into the massive dusty pit which will be the base of the stadium.

All the workers were dolled up in safety gear, there were more safety posters than shovels and the minders were boasting of injury- free, fatality-free safety record. Terrific story but, sadly, no one representing the Supreme Committee was allowed to go on camera to recite it.

And they weren’t the only ones. All requests for interviews with Qatari government officials made originally through the Qatari embassy in Canberra, through the Qatari News Agency and then the Supreme Committee were either ignored or denied.

When your critics are numerous and vociferous this is a poor media strategy. The public relations professionals hired by the Supreme Committee understand this perfectly well and I’m sure have counselled against it.

Qatar’s heavy-handed media management style is even more remarkable given that it hosts the most dynamic media company in the Middle East, Al Jazeera. How many AJ journalists I wonder would willingly, blindly, abide by the restrictions on journalism, cited above, which the Qatari News Agency seem to think they can impose. Al Jazeera has become successful precisely because it has taken an aggressive approach in the region, declining to be cowed by authoritarian regimes.

The only way that Qatar can minimise international media scrutiny and build a positive vibe for the World Cup is to institute the fundamental reforms which it has been promising for years and repeated in recent months. And that is by scrapping the kafala system, which is traditional throughout the Gulf and ritually abused in Qatar and elsewhere by employers and labour supply companies.

Kafala covers the terms by which labourers are hired, the conditions in which they work and live and the process by which they’re paid. All aspects need demonstrable, transparent reform. Most importantly employers should no longer be permitted to seize workers passports and refuse requests for their return.

If Qatar were to do all that, while ensuring safe and hygienic living conditions as well, then it would have a good, modernising story to tell the world. And international fans might even come for the football.

Response to the program was strong. Viewers were outraged that in such a rich country there was such cavalier disregard for fundamental rights for worked. The International Trade Union Confederation. Amnesty International, NewFIFANow and  other organisations all said that the program helped their campaigns for labour law reform in Qatar.

Greg Wilesmith is a senior producer on ABC TV’s Foreign Correspondent and Eric Campbell is a senior reporter there. “Slaves to the Beautiful Game” aired Tuesday, June 2: www.abc.net.au/foreign