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Arab media activist calls on Qatar to amend

BBC Monitoring

Text of report in English by Dubai newspaper Gulf News website on 18 May

    An Arab human rights activist has called on Qatari media to start a public debate on press freedom that would push the authorities to amend the existing press law, which he deemed as unconstitutional.

    Yahya Shukkier, a Jordan-based journalist and media freedom activist with the Amman Centre for Human Rights Studies, said despite the popularity of the controversial satellite news channel Al-Jazeera, other media in Qatar suffers from extensive self-censorship due to indirect pressures from public departments and publishers.

    "Qatar's press law does not meet the international standards on media freedom and is not compatible with the Qatari constitution. If Qatar had a constitutional court, it would rule against the existing legislation," Shukkier told Gulf News.

    "We [human rights activists] encouraged journalists here to tackle this issue and start a national debate to amend the press legislation and meet the international standards."

    Shukkier recently held a workshop on media freedom targeting Qatar-based journalists at the National Human Rights Committee.

    According to the activist, Qatar has still in place an obsolete Press and Publication Law 7/1997 that envisages the arbitrary closure of media establishments by the government without the possibility of appealing to a local court. It requires also for journalists in Qatar to obtain a governmental licence to operate, a rule which is not materially implemented.

    "Meaning that in theory the government can sue any journalist working without a licence. Also Qatari journalists need licensing."

    In a recent report on media freedom in the Arab world issued by the Amman Centre for Human Rights Studies, Qatar ranks third among the Arab countries, after Kuwait but Qatar's printed media is still a victim of extensive self-censorship, he said.

Challenges

    "There has been an improvement in Qatar's media freedom in general mainly represented by Al-Jazeera's phenomenon. On the other hand, some journalists in the printed press are facing a high level of self-censorship. They cannot challenge the government because they fear they may be deported. This fear comes from indirect pressures by the publishers, the advertisers and their relationship with the government and influential business establishments. In the end, self-censorship is equal to pre-censorship."

    Shukkier said it is important that media establishments debate these issues, introduce a code of ethics and possibly form journalists' unions to protect their rights.

    Qatari officials at the National Human Rights Committee and the Foreign Information Agency did not reply to requests to comment on the issue. Editors and journalists in the printed press, who have been approached, have also declined to comment.

    Qatar has currently three major English dailies Gulf Times, Peninsula and Qatar Tribune and three Arabic newspapers, Al Raya, Al Sharq and Al Watan.

    Doha-based Al-Jazeera news channel is considered the most controversial and popular TV channel of the Arab world.

    Source: Gulf News website, Dubai, in English 18 May 07

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