Qatar: Very restrictive accreditation for reporters covering Fifa World Cup

The new press accreditation that Qatar is providing for the 2022 FIFA World Cup continues to impose many restrictions on the media and to place vaguely-worded bureaucratic obstacles in their path. The emirate clearly wants to discourage journalists from working outside the football stadiums, says Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

“The Qatari authorities are misusing the accreditation system for journalists in order to ban them from covering certain subjects,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “By requiring that the media, when they apply for accreditation, agree to abide by a number of conditions, some of which are vague, ambiguous, and open to arbitrary interpretation, Qatar is clearly seeking to discourage, if not prevent, the foreign media from talking about anything other than football.”

Officially, Qatar has relaxed its restrictions for foreign journalists. Previous filming permits, which RSF has seen, contained a ban on reporting that harmed “Qatari public discipline, behaviour or Islamic customs.” The Emirate has eliminated this condition. Similarly, the new accreditations no longer specify the regions, neighbourhoods or streets where journalists can film.

Nonetheless, a warning on the official media accreditation website sets the tone. Journalists will not be allowed to film or photograph in “residential properties, private businesses and industrial zones” – the latter clearly alluding to sensitive areas where journalists have covered violations of migrant worker rights in the past. The permit also bans filming in "restricted areas where filming requires prior permission” and at "any site with signage or security advising of no photography/videography.”

Qatar Media Portal

Media outlets are told that submitting an online request for accreditation entails accepting a series of restrictions:

“By submitting this form, you/your organisation agree to the following terms:
- Only capture film/photography at permitted locations
- Not to capture film/photography at the excluded locations listed above
- Respect the privacy of individuals; to not intrude on their personal lives or film them or their properties without their express prior approval
- To comply with Qatari laws”

When contacted by RSF, the Qatari body overseeing the 2022 World Cup, the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy (SC), insisted that the authorities were not planning to impose any restrictions on the freedom of expression and reporting freedom of media representatives.

“In line with common practice all over the world, filming on private property is allowed, but requires consent from the owner or responsible entity for the property," the SC said.

Although the restrictions and conditions placed on reporters may seem humdrum, their loose wording and lack of precision allow the authorities to interpret them as they see fit and even modify their application. The ban on filming and photographing in “residential properties, private businesses and industrial zones” is a blanket one that makes no reference to the owners. In practice, this would mean that TV crews that go to Qatar for the World Cup could, for example, be forbidden to interview people in their homes.

To obtain permission to film, “you have to be able to navigate a complex bureaucratic maze that often leads to dead ends,” a Qatar-based foreign journalist said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The Qatari authorities thereby discourage journalists from venturing into places that could be a source of embarrassment, especially industrial areas where Qatar's migrant workers live.

“The last thing the Qatari government wants is to see thousands of journalists wandering around workers' living quarters with their cameras,” the same journalist said. “At the same time, they know they can't stop journalists from going there without attracting more attention. That's why they try to give the impression that nothing is forbidden, while keeping these restrictions.”

The procedure for obtaining permission to film in private properties, and even in non-sensitive places such as museums, conference rooms and other privately-owned locations, is usually lengthy in Qatar. Even identifying the authorities empowered to issue such permits is difficult. Allowing journalists to film where they want, while excluding privately-owned locations and industrial areas, is an ingenious way to restrict their work.

Journalists arrested for trespassing on private property

This was how BBC TV reporter Mark Lobel and his crew came to be detained for two days in May 2015, when the Qatari government invited them and other foreign journalists to see new accommodation for migrant workers. This kind of reporting is not uncommon but is done under close government supervision. After the escorted visit to the site, the BBC team returned on their own to do additional reporting but the authorities arrested them for “trespassing on private property” and confiscated their equipment.

“Trespassing on private property” was also the grounds used to detain Halvor Ekeland, a sports reporter for Norwegian public broadcaster NRK, and NRK photographer Lokman Ghorbani when they tried to cover migrant worker conditions in 2021. They were held for more than 30 hours and forced to delete their footage.

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