Independent online news portal Doha News has blasted the Qatari government’s ongoing block of the website in the country, saying that the nearly-three-month-old effort amounted to censorship.
The country’s two telecommunications providers, Ooredoo and Vodafone, have blocked access to Doha News since Nov. 30 and the site is only accessibly through a Virtual Private Network (VPN) or from outside of Qatar.
Government officials insist that the block is due to registration and licensing issues. However, Doha News founder Omar Chatriwala argued that any violation was rendered moot when the organisation moved its operations outside of the country.
“As far as I’m concerned, if the website is blocked, that is censorship,” he told the International Press Institute (IPI). “It’s being made inaccessible and that is censorship. Whatever the reason is, it’s still suppressing the information, saying you cannot access the website.”
Qatari officials have reportedly countered that the issue remains under review and no change has occurred in the site’s status. Doha News said it has been told that until it “sets up a new company and obtains a media license approved by the Culture Ministry, all Doha News activities within Qatar are in violation of the law”.
Founded nearly a decade ago, Doha News offers one of the very few broad-spectrum forms of reporting in the conservative Persian Gulf state, sometimes covering taboo topics such as homosexuality and marriages between Qataris and foreigners. Shabina Khatri, who co-founded Doha News with Chatriwala, said such coverage was a possible reason for the block.
The block has taken a toll on Doha News’ revenue stream, Chatriwala said. The outlet previously sold advertising through a Qatar-based company, but that company was closed. The drop in revenue has forced Doha News to seek income through a membership program, to scale back on its total reporting output and to cut back on employees, all of whom must now be outside of Qatar.
Chatriwala lamented the fact that there could be “a journalistic impact on accuracy, as it is much more difficult to operate in a credible manner when you can’t talk to people face to face”.
Qatar hosted IPI’s 2016 World Congress in Doha under the theme “Journalism at Risk”. IPI organised the event in partnership with the Al-Jazeera Center for Public Liberties and Human Rights to examine issues involving media freedom and journalists’ safety.
Chatriwala accused Qatar’s government of a “double standard” for having hosted such an event and then blocking his site within the same year.
IPI Director of Advocacy and Communications Steven M. Ellis said the block was inconsistent with the principles of media freedom that IPI’s World Congress promoted.
“The people of Qatar deserve to be able to share and receive information freely, and to hear voices independent from the mainstream,” he said. “The block on Doha News directly interferes with that right and we urge authorities to lift it immediately.”