NU-Q students raise concerns over Doha News’ website ban
December 8, 2016
Qatar’s major news website Doha News was blocked on Nov. 30 by the country’s leading telecom providers Ooredoo and Vodafone Qatar without notice. As Doha News editors attempt to determine the reasons behind the ban, media students at Northwestern University in Qatar are raising concerns about the country’s media freedom.
“This has been a sad week for journalism students at NU-Q and for the industry in Qatar as a whole and we are still hoping that officials reconsider their decision and unblock Doha News,” said Shabina Khatri, executive editor of Doha News. “I believe blocking our website will have a chilling effect on journalism in the country.”
On Sunday, Ooredoo responded to Doha News’ inquiry, saying the website was blocked “due to concerns raised regarding the licensing of your organization.” However, the Doha News team still believes the move to be an act of censorship.
“We reject the idea that our news website should be blocked over licensing concerns — this is a clear act of censorship, and a fairly unprecedented one in Qatar,” the website wrote on Sunday.
“As appalled and utterly disappointed I am about this, I am not one bit surprised, it was just a matter of time,” said Reem Saad, a journalism senior at NU-Q and a reporter at Doha News.
Saad believes that there are many in Qatar, including students at NU-Q, who did not like Doha News’ coverage of local issues and wanted it to shut down.
“Many feel that Doha News is overly critical of Qatar, even to an exaggerated extent,” said Sara Zainel, a Qatari journalism junior at NU-Q. “But at the same time, there are a lot of other news outlets that praise Qatar to the same exaggerated extent, so there is a balance.”
Recently, Doha News attracted a wealth of controversy over opinion pieces that tackled issues not often discussed in Qatar. Articles that featured the point-of-view of a Qatari homosexual man and complained about the government denying a Qatari citizen’s request to marry a non-Qatari caused recent stirs among the local population. In an odd sense of irony, Doha News recently put out an article discussing Qatar’s new cybercrime law being used to silence dissidents.
The “This site has been blocked” message that appears when a banned website is accessed is usually reserved for prohibited content that includes pornography, political criticism of Gulf countries, gay and lesbian content, and sexual health resources. Currently, Doha News is only available if accessed from outside of Qatar or through a virtual private network, which bypasses the local IP address blocker.
“Even though I’m not in Doha and so am not affected by it, I think it’s a giant step back for press freedom in Qatar,” said Chantelle D’Mello, a former Doha News employee and a recent NU-Q graduate. “It saddens me to know that the site is blocked and it cements everything people have said about press freedom being a farce in Qatar, which is something I’ve always disputed.”
Many have also pointed out the double standards of reporting in Qatar, with many who decried the imprisonment of Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt remaining silent over the ban on Doha News:
— Omar Chatriwala (@omarc) December 3, 2016
Fatima Al-Saai, a journalism junior at NU-Q, said “Where are we supposed to get information from? Doha News covers everything whether it’s culturally appropriate or not. Why shut it off?”
NU-Q’s administration did not comment on the matter due to unclear reasons behind the ban.
Here are some additional tweets from students and faculty at NU-Q.
Whether Qatar censorship software’s blocking of @dohanews is accidental or deliberate, it shows how such programs imperil freedom of speech
— Justin D. Martin (@Justin_D_Martin) December 1, 2016
Disheartened that Doha News was blocked in Qatar. How are we media students supposed to feel encouraged about the field we’re in after this.
— A.J. Al-Thani (@AJAlThani) November 30, 2016
Many people from this country are quite sensitive to criticisms and can’t handle it well. Sad.
— Sara H. Al-Ansari (@SaraAlAnsari19) December 2, 2016
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of the article misspelt Ooredoo. The mistake has since been corrected.