Qatar squashes independence of free press advocacy group mere months after it opened

Director and staff of Doha-based resign amid pressure from gov't.

Emir of Qatar 248 88 ap (photo credit: )
Emir of Qatar 248 88 ap
(photo credit: )
The future appears murky for a Doha-based center that aims to protect beleaguered journalists worldwide after its director and staff resigned amid pressure from the Qatari government. Those monitoring global press freedom say the recent events in Doha constitute a blow to free speech in the Arab world, where members of the media are regularly censored. Robert Menard, former director of the Doha Center for Media Freedom, said he tendered his resignation, effective this past Sunday, because he was not being allowed to accomplish the organization's mission of promoting free speech and assisting persecuted reporters. Menard told The Jerusalem Post by e-mail on Wednesday that he had been subjected to various problematic pressures since the center's launch last October. Most vexing was a proposal from Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer al-Thani, chairman of the organization's board of governors and of the government-owned Al-Jazeera TV station, to establish a steering committee controlled by representatives of Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. "It was unacceptable," Menard said. "We could not work anymore under the conditions that some wanted to impose, and that would have driven the center to be directly dependent on the authorities." Menard said he has since returned to Paris, where he ran the free press advocacy group Reporters Without Borders for 23 years. He is contemplating his next move and said the future of the Doha Centre was in the Qataris' hands. "I want to be optimistic, even if this part of the world is one of the most repressive on the planet," he said. "The fact itself that a center like the one in Doha was able to work, even for a few months, in complete freedom, proves that this region is not destined to immobilization. We have to keep fighting." Sponsored by the emir's wife, Sheikha Mozah Nasser al-Misnad, and Reporters Without Borders, the center has extended grants to more than 250 journalists in peril. Qatar's Economy and Finance Ministry provides the center's $4 million annual budget. The center did not respond to telephone and e-mail requests for comment, and calls to its main number yielded a recording saying the line had been suspended. Representatives of Al-Jazeera and Sheikha Mozah did not return requests for comment. "Initiatives like the Doha Center are absolutely needed in the region," said Larry Kilman, a spokesman for the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, which includes the Arab Press Network. "It's all censored. The basic line is there are red lines that can't be crossed, there are subjects that can't be tackled." "It is by no means considered a free press in the [Persian] Gulf." Menard's detractors said the flamboyant Frenchman, known for his controversial campaigns and banners, did not understand the social mores of conservative Qatar, where women are expected to wear full-length abayas and avoid public sporting events, and alcohol consumption is largely confined to Western hotels. Menard provoked outrage this spring by unknowingly allowing the center to co-sponsor a World Press Freedom Day event attended by editors from the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, scorned by the Muslim world for publishing cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in 2005. Kilman compared those who say Menard tried to do too much, too fast to Communist officials asserting that the Chinese people aren't ready for democracy and prefer stability over volatility. "We would like to see full press freedom granted everywhere as fast as possible," he said. "It's been missing for far too long."