x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Press freedom centre struggling in Qatar

Diplomatic sensitivities and resistance to true media freedom in the region have hampered the institute's work, says its founder.

Robert Menard jumped at the chance to run the Doha Center for Media Freedom when Qatar's Sheikh Mozah offered to fund it, but its mission has proved a controversial one for its host, and the Muslim world.
Robert Menard jumped at the chance to run the Doha Center for Media Freedom when Qatar's Sheikh Mozah offered to fund it, but its mission has proved a controversial one for its host, and the Muslim world.

As co-founder of an international media rights group, Robert Ménard has never been afraid to speak his mind, whether to condemn human rights abuses in China or urge Pakistan to protect reporters threatened by the Taliban.

But the Frenchman's biggest battle has been in Qatar, where he set up a ground-breaking media freedom centre, but has come under a barrage of criticism for his plain-speaking style. Less than a year after the opening of the Doha Center for Media Freedom, which provides shelter to journalists whose lives are threatened in their home countries, its future is uncertain. Since his arrival, the 55-year-old former secretary general of Reporters without Borders, the Paris-based lobby group, has been caught up in one controversy after another; accused of insulting Islam and pushing the boundaries of domestic press freedom more than the conservative country is comfortable with.

"I don't know what will happen but we are waiting and it depends on the next few days," he said, speaking from his native Paris. "We're seeing huge difficulties with the Qatari government. I am disappointed." Next week, the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who endorsed the centre, will begin a three-day state visit to France accompanied by his wife, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Misnned, who funded it.

The fate of the centre and Mr Ménard is expected to be raised with French authorities and a decision made on its future by the Qatari royal couple. Repeated attempts to contact Sheikha Mozah's office were not successful. The last eight months have been a roller coaster for Mr Ménard, who became involved in the project following a visit to Baghdad in Sept 2007 when he met some of the families of 200 journalists murdered in the war that followed the US-led invasion in 2003.

"I wrote a letter to Sheikha Mozah after the trip because I was sad and surprised there was no solidarity in the Arab world. So she responded. She said we should do something about it. I met her a month later and we discussed the idea." At the time he was secretary general of Reporters without Borders, but when Sheikha Mozah, a leading proponent of reform in the region and a supporter of education and press freedom, asked him to run the centre, it proved to be an irresistible offer.

"My motivation to come was that the Doha centre would be the first organisation to defend the press that would be credible, not in Europe, not in United States, but in the Arab world and that challenge, that it was not in the West, was what decided it for me." The centre's two main functions are to provide shelter for threatened journalists and fund media organisations in countries ruled by repressive regimes. Journalists are allowed to stay for up to six months, have their medical bills and legal aid paid for while they decide their future. The centre also helps rebuild media outlets destroyed in fighting or natural disasters and offers technical assistance to governments wishing to reform their press laws.

"But in the last year we've only had two journalists as refugees, an Afghan journalist and a Somali. They are both in Paris now and we helped arrange their visas to France where they will apply for asylum," said Mr Ménard, adding that the Qatari authorities have not granted any more visas to reporters despite repeated requests. "It might create problems on the diplomatic level in countries where the journalists are from," he said.

"However in the beginning the rule was the centre is independent and it wouldn't have anything to do with Qatar diplomacy. We keep receiving e-mails and journalists from all over the world especially Somalia and Pakistan and we cannot provide them with assistance." In March, Mr Ménard wrote an open letter to Sheikha Mozah which was published on the centre's website to tell her that "some people close to you and others you have appointed to senior positions at the centre" were obstructing its activities.

Such a public dressing down of officials is unacceptable in Arab culture. Matters became worse when Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of the Danish newspaper that published the controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed four years ago, flew to a Unesco conference in Doha. The local daily al Watan accused Mr Ménard of welcoming "Satan" to Doha and insulting all Muslims. One mosque denounced the media centre during Friday prayers. Mr Ménard and the centre deny they had any role in Rose's visit. In May, the centre also spoke out to support an Egyptian investigative journalist at Al Sharq newspaper who had received an anonymous death threat in the form of a poem. The threat may have been connected to a series of stories published by the paper on embezzlement.

Last week, a member of the government advisory council called for Mr Ménard's sacking, a local paper Al Arab reported. Qatar has been one of the leading Arab states in developing civil society mainly through the Qatar Foundation Education Science and Community Development which has about 40 initiatives, most famously The Doha Debates. But some have suggested that Mr Ménard may have tried to push Qatar too quickly.

"Creating a media environment is long term and complicated but the media have an essential role in development of this society," said Robert Baxter, communications adviser for the foundation. "I'm not criticising Ménard but development of an appropriate media environment is something longer term and it goes to the heart of the social and cultural changes the Qatar Foundation is leading. "It is one thing to export it abroad like Al Jazeera and another thing to have it here. It is a long-term thing but essential to the society they want to create."

Mr Ménard is less sanguine. "I came to realise Sheikha Mozah's vision was not shared by many Qataris and concluded that maybe it is too early for Qatar or the Arab world to have this centre." hghafour@thenational.ae