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The rise and fall of Doha News

Plumes of smoke began rising over Villagio Mall in Qatar on May 28, 2012. As ambulances rushed to the scene, 13 children and six adults lay dead. Trapped inside an unlicensed childcare facility within the mall, they had been overcome by smoke inhalation.

While rumours and gossip spread throughout the city, the local media outlets remained stubbornly quiet. If you wanted reliable information about what was actually happening your only source was Doha News.

Founded in 2009 as a Twitter account by expats Omar and Shabina, Doha News would grow to become Qatar’s most popular English language news source. Whether it was the Villagio fire, the gruesome murder of British Expat Lauren Patterson, or local tales of corruption and graft, the website provided an alternative to the country’s heavily scripted censorship.

Obviously, it couldn’t last…

Doha News was officially blocked by the country’s security service on November 30, 2016. It continued to operate a shadow website for several months before financial realities forced its owners to sell up and move on.

What follows is the inside story of Doha News, as told by original co-founder Omar Chatriwala.

It’s a cautionary tale about a news site that sought to bring transparency and investigative reporting to a country that’s never placed much stock in either. And the price they paid.

Every story has a beginning…

“My father is a retired petroleum engineer, he’s originally from India, my mother is Hispanic and from Texas. My father worked for various oil companies, so we lived a fair amount in the Gulf — in Saudi Arabia, in Kuwait, Bahrain.

I went on to study journalism at the university of Texas. I liked the idea of civic responsibility, and being engaged with the community, which are things that journalism offered. After college I worked in California for a bit before getting a job offer for Al Jazeera English when they were first launching in 2006.”

The local news in 140 characters

“My (now) wife Shabina joined me in Qatar. She started doing some freelance writing work and found it quite unsatisfying. Working for the local papers it was very much a case of, ‘Here’s the story we’re going to tell, it doesn’t really matter if it’s factually true’.

She started the Twitter account, Doha News, as a journalistic outlet. Back then the local news sites were not updated on a regular basis, maybe once a day. And even then you had to wade through the international news, and the Indian news, just to find local info about Qatar.

So the Twitter account was a curation thing. It was about, ‘I’m trying to find out what’s happening around town as an English speaking foreigner, let me help other people on Twitter as well’. It grew in popularity, and if she didn’t tweet for a few days there would be rumours that it was shut down. Eventually she asked me to help out and pitch in.”

A Tumblr blog is born

“In 2010 I decided I didn’t want to do my job at Al Jazeera English any more — I was frustrated, I was bored, and I’d drawn up some plans for a proper Doha News site.

I suggested to Shabina that we should do a Tumblr blog. At the time Twitter didn’t accept photos, and there were various other limitations. So it was like, ‘We can do a little more if we have a blog’.

From there it turned into each of us posting 2–3 times a day. Just a couple of sentences and a link to a story, or a cool photo, or some local news. And suddenly people were telling us, ‘Oh I check your site seven or eight times a day’.”

The Villagio fire changed everything

“The day of the fire, if you tuned into the radio stations, or turned on Qatar TV, or checked the official news sites you wouldn’t hear anything or see anything, so there was a real lack of news and information. You had Twitter, but there were a lot of rumours there, it wasn’t really reliable.

We were in a position to provide information that people were looking for in real time. We were able to get in touch with somebody at Hammad Hospital, get in touch with one of the parents of the victims, and confirm what was actually happening. We had 100,000 people on the site that day, because it was the only source of reliable news.”

It’s not a football match

“There was a real reluctance by the major papers and news outlets to report on Villagio. And it’s because they don’t really have the concept of informing people in real. There was a quote from the Qatar TV chairman, something along the lines of, ‘It wasn’t a football match to be broadcast live’. They didn’t consider offering a play-by-play account of what was going on to be dignified. This is despite the fact everyone was talking about it.”

Self-imposed censorship

“When I did some work with the Qatar Centre for Media Freedom, one of the major programs they were trying to do at the time was media literacy. Trying to get people to understand what the point of media was, what its implications were. I don’t think that’s really a part of Qatari society [the idea that journalism is important and valid]. It’s more along the lines of, ‘We trust our government, we trust our leaders’. So there’s a cultural difference, and a self imposed censorship.”

The local Arabic media

“There is a lot more information disseminated in the Arabic papers. Culturally, there’s this idea that, ‘We need to know this information, but we don’t need to share this information. We don’t want to make the country look bad, we don’t want to air our dirty laundry, we don’t need to put all this stuff in English, we don’t need to spread it around’.”

Walking a fine line

“There’s always been some push and pull as far as Doha News and local attitudes. When we attended the press conference after the Villagio fire in 2012 one of the government officials thanked us for our coverage. But in 2013 we ran a story about local bars closing and drinks being banned at the Pearl, which ruffled a few feathers and drew some backlash within the Qatari community. We were subsequently kicked out of our offices at Katara, so that was an early indication that things were not beautiful and perfect.”

Shut it down

“We realised [just how unhappy] the government was with your work when the site was blocked. That was a pretty strong indicator.”

Looking for excuses

“When they blocked us, the government said we were not officially licensed to publish. We had a partnership with I Love Qatar, but we were told it wasn’t legal because it hadn’t been registered with the Ministry of Justice. They said that, ‘The way you are operating isn’t correct, you can’t have a company operating under another company, you have to set up your own entity’.

Anybody who has done work in Qatar will know that laws are changing all the time, regulations are constantly changing, it’s very hard to keep up with them. So it seems the intention was to find a way to shut us down, because there was no interest in negotiating a solution… I later heard from a couple of people that there was a taskforce actively looking for ways to shut down Doha News.”

Between a rock and a hard place

“Doha News was a start up business, without any external funding. We paid ourselves a little bit when we could, and we spent the rest on freelance journalists, trying to grow our base, and improving the website. Any time we had money from the business we spent it back on the business.

By 2017 we had reached a million unique visitors per month, and about 80% of them were from Qatar. So being blocked in Qatar was a huge blow, and it cut off a major portion of our audience. We could still find ways to reach people (via Medium and the shadow website), but advertisers were saying, ‘Well if it’s blocked why would I advertise with you?’”

The slow death of a website

“After they blocked us we had the choice of either shutting it down or selling it. Shabina was in the States at the time, so we said, ‘Okay, we’ll just keep publishing for now, but from overseas, and see what happens’.

Meanwhile, I went in and met with the government’s Communications Office, tried to figure out how to resolve it. But they weren’t particularly interested in a quick resolution or ways to solve the problem.

So I was looking around to see if we could find a business partner that could take it forward and do something with us. Some Qataris were interested, but we were advised that this could open us up to further litigation and problems. So even though there was some local interest, it seemed like throwing good money after bad if we doubled down.

After 8–9 months of working on it remotely, and having no indication whether the government would allow us to operate officially, we figured, ‘We’re out of the country, we’ve done the best we can, it’s time to move on and sell’. A foreign company was interested, and they basically said, ‘We’re not buying Doha News, we’re just buying the assets, and what we do after that and whether we work with you we’ll see’. So that’s how it ended up with the current foreign owners.”

Things fall apart

“It’s disappointing, it’s sad to see what’s happened to the site (since we sold it). We spent years building it, working hard to establish a reputation and something that people would find value in. But it’s gone the opposite direction since then. I mean it’s essentially a shell of itself. It’s not just the goodwill of the readership that’s disappeared, it’s the reporting itself.

Someone told me earlier, ‘If you and Sabina aren’t there it just doesn’t have the same value’, and I knew that, but I hoped that people would find a way to sustain it. When people say they’re committed to journalism you hope they’ll follow through with that. That hasn’t happened.”

A lasting legacy

“We always saw the same things play out in the comments, the disgruntle expat, angry about everything saying, ‘This place sucks, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to work here’. And then there was the Qatari, or the person who had lived there their whole life saying, ‘If you don’t like it leave’.

We all saw those standard tropes, but we’d also see Qataris on the site communicating with expats, and having different interactions. We were always pleased when we saw something a little more intellectual, where people would actually help people and provide information. So I think the site did help promote cross-cultural exchange. That’s its legacy.”

For more information on living and working in Qatar please refer to my book — God Willing: How to survive expat life in Qatar.



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