On the sidelines of the World Press Freedom Day,
Rubina Singh speaks to Jan Keulen, Director, Doha Centre for
Media Freedom (DCMF) about why media freedom
is crucial for the success of Qatar Vision 2030
A ‘journalist, a Middle-East person and an activist’ might be the way Jan Keulen, Director, Doha Centre for Media Freedom (DCMF), modestly describes himself. Dig a little deeper, and there lies a wealth of wisdom resulting from years of experience gained through reporting in some of the trickiest times and places in the world.
Before joining DCMF in 2011, Keulen was the programme director of the Dutch NGO Free Voice. He has worked for 20 years as a foreign correspondent for several Dutch media, including 12 years reporting from the Middle East.
Keulen has also taught journalism. He founded the programme ‘Investing in the Future’ for journalists and media lawyers in six Arab countries — Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Bahrain and Yemen.
In 2010, Keulen designed and implemented Article 19 — a course for journalists in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua on Freedom of Expression, Access to Information and Safety of Journalists. He was based in Beirut as a correspondent during the civil war for six years, five years in Latin America, another four years in Jordan and has extensive understanding and knowledge of different regions.
Last week, the world celebrated Press Freedom Day. Falling on May 3 each year, the occasion offers an opportunity to recognise the dangers faced and contribution made by journalists towards protecting media freedom. In Qatar, the DCMF invited journalists to discuss the ‘Media Scene in Qatar: Past, Present and Future’ and has recently launched a report on media laws and regulations (see web link below) in the Gulf.
Over to Keulen …
What do you see as the most important aspect of DCMF and your role as director?
Building journalist capacity, not only in Qatar but in other Arab countries as well, is a very important element because it is intimately linked with freedom. We engage in media literacy projects for schools and community. At this stage we are working with 45 schools in Qatar and collaborating with the Ministry of Education to have media literacy included in all schools. Minister of Education HE Saad bin Ibrahim al-Mahmoud and his department are very enthusiastic about it and the scale of the programme is quite unique in the Gulf. This is more of the educational side or what I call capacity building.
The other side is advocacy, where we are campaigning for the safety of journalists in different international forums, disseminating information through various studies and helping journalists in countries like Somalia, Syria or others where there is turmoil. We are an independent, non-profit, civil society institution. Although we are supported by the government, we are not a governmental organisation.
What aspects of media freedom is DCMF going to be focusing on in the near future?
The slogan for this year is ‘safe to speak’. For us, safety of journalists is the No. 1 priority.
Qatar does not have a syndicate. Is DCMF able to support journalists trying to make a difference for the better in that respect?
If there would be an initiative from Qatari journalists or from journalists residing in this country to organise themselves and to take the initiative, we would be the first to support it but it’s not our task to initiate.
What is the importance of free media in the progress of a country, and do you think such initiatives have to come from Qatari nationals or can expat journalists contribute to the cause?
This is Qatar, so this is their country, and so any change has to come from the Qatari people, I think. Media is an important sector in the progress and development of a society and I’m not alone in saying that somehow media development in this region is lagging behind.
Sport, science, education, research and infrastructure ... in all those fields Qatar is doing a great job! Together we are all working towards the 2030 vision and to realise this vision and build a knowledge-based economy, you simply have to have an open and free press. And there is nothing wrong in local journalists or expat journalists, me for example, to make that point because this is in line with the stated policy of Qatar.
In 2010, Qatar’s Minister of Culture and Arts HE Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kuwari had re-iterated “... there’s a need to draft a new media law that regulates all aspects of information dissemination.”
This law is still being discussed? Why has this law taken so long?
Well one of the reasons, and I am only speculating, could be that the Arab Spring also produced some uncertainty in the region. The civil war going on in Syria is affecting the security situation of the whole region and has had negative effects on media freedom and several other aspects everywhere, including Qatar. That might perhaps be one of the reasons why we are still waiting for this law.
Another thing, I think, has to do with the make-up of the media professionals in Qatar. Media is a strategic sector but more than 90% of those who work in media are not Qataris. The question of media freedom also touches on the status of non- Qataris in a Qatari society and so there are a number of questions that still remain unanswered. But at the end of the day, they have to reconcile their ambition to create media freedom, to have a modern society, to have a public which is well informed, with the laws in place. The Villaggio fire incident, for instance, proves the crucial role of local media.
Do you think the media in Qatar failed the public during the Villaggio fire incident?
Yes, I don’t think they did a very good job. Not only the coverage of the incident but also what happened afterwards has been fairly ambiguous. What happened to the relatives of the victims? What kinds of safety and security measures were really taken? Is it safer now? We haven’t really seen anything about that in the media.
Do you think the public will ever hear about the details of the legal proceedings against guilty parties from that disaster?
I would be very surprised if we do not hear anything about the final judgement but there have been more than 11 court hearings. As somebody who lives here, I would like to have a little bit more information about what happened during those court cases. And if there’s any reason not to publish them, it should be conveyed to the public.
But I haven’t read anything about that and so there’s an atmosphere that suggests lack of transparency surrounding that case which I find regrettable. Sometimes a judge might have to disallow media inside a court room for privacy or security reasons but then that should be said, so that the people are aware that media is not covering up, what is in principle, important news. It should be highlighted that the absence of details is because according to the court, for specific and stated reasons, it would be detrimental to the case proceedings.
I think sometimes there is a misunderstanding on how the role of media is perceived. While news and amusement are both expected of media, they also have another important role and that is to take care of the cohesion of the community.
There is a role played by media which is to console, I think, especially in cases of disasters or calamities and this was the aspect in which media was not able to stand up to the communities’ need and expectation in the case of Villaggio fire where 13 children died.
How would you rate the freedom aspect of the media in Qatar?
They are somewhere in the middle. There are no journalists in prison, there are no media closed down ... there is a general feeling that we can do better and there is a slogan of ‘Qatar deserves the best’! So from that perspective and I speak for a lot of journalists, media heads, government people and community members who feel that Qatar can do better.
What is the way forward in the short term?
One of the first steps is to have a media legislation guaranteeing press freedom in place, not a list of prohibitions. And ultimately also guaranteeing or working on a culture of information ... to have access to information. I’m not necessarily calling for a law but improving and opening up sources would be a big improvement.
What can be done to contribute further to that?
The readership, audience and community demanding information, openness and transparency would be a step forward. Maybe people don’t expect that from newspapers in Qatar, I don’t know. There should be a political decision as well. And I can understand why it is difficult to take that political decision, seeing the issues I’ve just talked about and the current political environment we are in. But I do think the public can be more demanding and I do think the journalists can do more as well.
What changes in the media scene do you think will empower Qatar towards achieving its 2030 vision?
I think it would be an enormous step forward for journalists to somehow organise themselves. The initiative needs to come from the Qataris but the non-Qataris shouldn’t be excluded either. Just being able to talk about important issues in public, has a liberating effect and it is an achievable idea if we just create a platform to discuss these issues.
For DCMF report on media laws and regulations, follow the link: (http://www.dc4mf.org/sites/default/files/gcc_media_law_en_1.pdf)
I, me, myself
My most memorable experience
Covering the civil war in Lebanon
Person who influenced me most
Anton Constandse — a famous Dutch journalist well known for his free thinking and analytical skills
Best thing that ever happened to me
My wife and two sons
My greatest fear
Some accident happening to my family
My greatest weakness
My strongest personality trait
My weakest personality trait
Sometimes taking too many risks
Most dearest possession/treasure
My personal archive on Lebanon and Palestine
My favourite celebrity...
Berlusconi (and leaders like him)
I can’t live without...
I can’t live with...
lack of freedom
Gadget I couldn’t do without
My small radio
Biggest turn on/ turn off...
Good poetry / throwing away food
Assisting journalists in need ...
Makes my life worth living
I don’t believe in ...
Short fix when it comes to media freedom
Three things to do before I die
Visit sub-Saharan Africa, write a book about my Qatari experience, connect to my friends all over the world
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