Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee conference on freedom of expression

The National Human Rights Committee (NHRC) of Qatar hosted a conference on threats to freedom of expression in Doha recently. The two-day conference was in partnership with the International Press Institute (IPI) and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). Journalists and human rights activists from different parts of the world were represented at the conference. Qatar blockade and Al Jazeera Media Network was inevitably dominating many sessions of the conference. Qatar has been under a blockade from air, land and sea since 05 June 2017. The blockade led by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt presented a number of demands to Qatar including closing Al Jazeera and its affiliates. The opening session was attended by a throng of diplomats, journalists and human rights activists, messages of support and solidarity with Qatar, Al Jazeera and its staff were conveyed.

There are certain observations worth mentioning about this conference. Firstly, notwithstanding the diversity of countries and organisations in attendance, there was a noticeable absence of young journalists and human rights activists. How can such an important demographic group not be present in such a significant gathering? After all, youth in the Middle East is probably the most important voice in the media and civil society activism, the Arab Spring is one case in point where youth played a significant role. The conference instead had an over representation of older journalists and activists. This has unfortunately drowned the important young voices from the region, the articulation of their inspirations and visions for the future Middle East would have been useful. Furthermore there was also a significant lack of grass-root organisations, particularly women’s organisations from the region. It is a missed opportunity which could have assisted in presenting holistic recommendations on human rights and freedom of expression in the region. The interactions between members of the civil society, rural, urban, young and old are key. They could assist in achieving some kind of cohesions on matters involving journalism and human rights. The discussions at the conference were by and large between the converted regular suspects. There is a strong impression within the region that the West imposes itself and its principles in the region. The argument is that most of these principles are discussed and agreed amongst by few without the contribution of people in the Middle East. “Every freedom is gained through hardship, it is therefore the people who should define what they understand by human rights not few individuals seating in air-conditioned meetings”. There seem to be reluctance by those who occupy top positions of power at these institutions to listen to these concerns.

Furthermore there was also an absence of prominent journalists and civil activists from the region, prominent media organisations were not properly represented. There are a number of journalists and activists from the Middle East that have a tremendous impact on the civil society. Al Jazeera alone have a number of very influential journalists who deserved to be there, their presence would have had an enormous impact. Moreover, Doha is a host a number of activists from many Arab countries, their presence would have been very beneficial. They could have shared with the conference their experiences, many would have benefited from that interaction.

Having said that, there is one important take away from the conference which was articulated by amongst others the Chief Executive Officer of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth. Qatar has entered a new political space, the political solidarity it received during this ongoing political debacle came from unusual places. Qatar’s new political support will strongly entrench the country outside the region henceforth. This will present a number of opportunities and indeed challenges for the country. Firstly, Qatar has to capitalize on the publicity and solidarity it received. It can rely on these new “friends” as it prepares itself for the post — blockade era. It might also have to deal with living with the presence of international media and human rights watchdogs which will most likely exert more political scrutiny on Qatar. Secondly, Qatar could be pressured to prematurely ratify certain international treaties involving human rights and political rights. Roth alluded to this in his speech. Should this happen Qatar could become a regional refuge to a number political dissidents, this might further anger its neighbours.

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