The online news outlet Doha News just published an e-book on the Villagio Mall fire in Doha, Qatar, that left 19 people dead including many small children one year ago. It’s an excellent resource that documents the events and reactions to the tragedy. Importantly, the 60-page book details the failure of the local media and how the void in coverage has led to a general lack in accountability for those involved. Here’s a section of the book:
Weeks later, on Sept. 6, the trial to determine criminal responsibility for the fire deaths commenced. However, the hearing was postponed after some of the defendants failed to turn upin court. Shortly thereafter, on Sept. 20, Villaggio mall did reopen tothe public, but offered no information about what changes were made to the facility to make it a safer place.
Qatar received the news with an ambivalence that continuesto this day.
As people began heading back to the mall, Jane Weekes expressed her pain to Doha News: “One of the hardest things about losing a child orchildren is how quickly the world seems to return tonormal whilst ours remains shattered. This will equally be the case for the families of the 4 teachers and 2 firefighters who perished, who are not only someone’schild but also leave behind children of their own.”
In the months to follow, the court proceedings would be post-poned three more times because of the absence of Gympanzeeco-owner Iman Al Kuwari, who had moved to Belgium withher family after the fire, as her husband Sheikh Ali Bin Jassim Al Thani began his post as Qatar’s ambassador there.
Of course, Doha News was later banned from covering the trial because it wasn’t considered an “official” media outlet. The result is that the best news outlet in Qatar couldn’t cover the most important trail of the year. Here’s the full book:
I referenced these Principles of Journalism during a panel on the difficulty of training journalists at the International Press Institute’s World Congress in Amman, Jordan. These principles were developed by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in their book “The Elements of Journalism.” I think they’re the best encapsulation of the definition of good journalism.
1) Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.2) Its first loyalty is to citizens.
3) Its essence is a discipline of verification.
4) Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.
5) It must serve as an independent monitor of power.
6) It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.
7) It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.
It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.
9) Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.
Some of these are quite easy to support — governments and press alike. “Obligation to truth” and “discipline of verification,” for instance. However, in countries with an elected leader or ruler, the government might not appreciate the “first loyalty to citizens” and “independent monitor of power.”
Hence the inherent subversiveness in teaching good journalism.
Here are the slides for my workshop today in Amman, Jordan, for the International Press Institute World Congress.
Many thanks to Steve Buttry, digital first innovator, who provided much of the inspiration and information for the slides.
Great interview with Jan Keulen, the director of the Doha Centre for Media Freedom, in which he talks extensively about the problem with Qatari journalism.
Below is good bit about the trial coverage of the tragic Villagio Mall fire, in which 13 children in a daycare lost their lives. The judge in the trial barred an online outlet, Doha News (the best online news outlet in the Gulf), from covering the trial. That leaves the trial coverage to the local newspapers, and their coverage has been less than exhaustive.
Yes, I don’t think (the local media) 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.
… 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.
Good points. And kudos to the Doha Gulf Times for printing the interview.
The problem with the trial can be seen throughout the Gulf — a lack of transparency in the issues most important to the public. This approach is entrenched in the political and cultural DNA of the region. Only a new generation, raised in a different communication environment, will be able to change the status quo.
Anyone interested in exploring the boundaries of freedom of expression should start with the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
The ICCPR is a United Nations Treaty that outlines the ideal goals by which governments should operate to both provide safety for the society while ensuring individual human rights.
No country considers freedom of expression an absolute. For instance, all societies prohibit untruthful defamation of reputation or the incitement to imminent lawless action. However, freedom of expression is an important human right that must be protected against overly aggressive states usually seeking to ensure stability.
The United Nations treaty acknowledges the need for balance between these two interests by creating a framework to help guide policy makers in developing regulations around freedom of speech. Section 19 of the ICCPR states:
1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.
2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.
3. The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:
(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others;
(b) For the protection of national security or of public order or of public health or morals.
Therefore, this covenant explicitly guarantees freedom of speech but expressly notes which areas justify limits being placed upon it: Protection of reputation (defamation), national security and public order, and public health and morals.
It’s important to note what’s not included — licensing of journalists, laws against false news and bans on insulting or offensive language.
The ICCPR offers any nation struggling with finding proper boundaries of free expression with a useful blueprint.
The judge in the trial of the Atlanta Public School cheating scandal case just lifted the gag order that had prohibited defendants from talking to the press. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported:
(Superior Court Judge Jerry) Baxter granted a motion jointly filed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News seeking to remove gag orders on the APS defendants that were made a part of their bonds. The orders restricted the administrators and educators from talking to the media and public about the case.
Tom Clyde, a lawyer for the AJC and WSB-TV, said “a core part of being an American citizen” is a defendant’s right to profess his or her innocence.
Quinn countered that the defendants agreed to the condition in exchange for getting their bonds reduced. “This was something they did knowingly and voluntarily,” he said.
So, the judge asked, they could either post bonds of several million dollars or agree not to talk about the case?
“I’m striking that,” he said.
The gag order limited the press from covering the story fairly by giving prosecutors a monopoly on access to reporters.
Gag orders are considered a form of “prior restraint” — a serious abridgment of freedom of the press. However, they aren’t necessarily viewed as unconstitutional since the U.S. Constitution guarantees both a right to a free press as well as a right to a fair trial.
The Supreme Court generally holds that gag orders must directly lead to a more fair trial for defendants in order to uphold any restrictions on press coverage.
Given that standard, it’s hard to see how the gag order in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating case would lead to a more fair trial for the defendants.
The AJC and WSB deserve praise for paying their lawyers to fight the gag order. They are owned by the same company, Cox Communications — a reminder that bigger isn’t always badder when it comes to media outlets.
This post has been removed because I’m editing it for publication. Will post a link when it’s up.
This is a great talk from American Islamic scholar Hamza Yusuf on issues surrounding global communication and Islam. He spoke after the YouTube video portraying the Prophet Mohammed caused so much offense in the Muslim world last year.
He makes some great points. First, he describes how Islamic scholars sometimes limit freedom of speech by labeling anything they disagree with as an insult to the prophet. He mentioned his own experience in which Islamic scholars said he needed to make public repentance for defending someone who had insulted the prophet. Yusuf said:
That certainly wasn’t my intention. But, I was pointing out a nuance. Well, we’re living in a world where nuance is no longer in our vocabularies. We are in the cartoon world of black and white. It’s not even color cartoons.
Fantastic point that could apply to some Islamic scholars as well as many segments of American society. In my opinion, Islamophobia and Islamic extremism are essentially two sides of the same coin.
He then goes on to discuss freedom of speech with some nuance. Yusuf discusses Holocaust denial laws, the confusion between the support for free speech vs. support for the specific speech, and the shifting perspectives on protection of reputation. Give it a listen.
Just wanted to link to the article earlier this week in which a NY Times reporter used my case as a foil to examine the issue of teaching free expression in the Gulf Arab States. Here’s the lede:
DOHA, QATAR — When Matt J. Duffy first got a job teaching journalism at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi in 2010, he was thrilled.
Besides teaching courses in storytelling, journalistic ethics, and media regulation at Zayed, Dr. Duffy, an enthusiastic blogger, became a frequent contributor to Gulf News, a Dubai newspaper. He also was chairman of a conference on the role of the media in the Arab Spring, started a student chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and organized campus celebrations of World Press Freedom Day last May.
Three months later, he was expelled from the United Arab Emirates without any explanation.
In Doha, the capital of the neighboring Gulf state of Qatar, students at Northwestern University’s campus there were discussing recently the relevance of the admonition by the investigative journalist I.F. Stone that “all governments lie” to a society whose leaders seldom feel the need to explain their actions. The classroom debate was as spirited and irreverent as it might be on any U.S. campus, and the students — a mix of Qataris, Gulf-based expatriates and foreigners — seemed adept at negotiating the contradictions between the uninhibited reporting on Al Jazeera, a network based in Doha and funded by the local government, and the fact that as one student put it, “If they don’t like what you say here, they can deport you.”
Yep, that about sums it up. The article goes on to explore different aspects of education and journalism in the Gulf and includes quotes from a couple of well-respected deans of journalism schools, including the one at Northwestern-Qatar. Sounds like academics at his university have a little more freedom to address “sensitive” subjects.
I’ve written an article for “Arab Media and Society” that explores this issue a little more. I believe that will be the final nail in the coffin.
My professional group, the Association for Journalism and Mass Communication Education (AEJMC), just released a statement decrying the current administrations approach to prosecuting press leaks.
It’s an important statement because President Obama is taking an unprecedented tack with these historically common leaks. Our group — obviously concerned with protecting good journalism and public accountability — should not remain silent while this happens. Many are quite surprised that Obama — who promised to be transparent and more open in dealing with the press — appears to many to be no different that his predecessor.
For the average person, the value of leaking classified information is lost. However, most “big stories” that uncover government abuse and waste came to the press by way of an anonymous whistleblower who leaked the information. The statement opens:
The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) is committed to freedom of speech and the press in the United States and abroad. AEJMC believes that this commitment must include a free exchange of information and ideas, even some information that the U.S. government considers or wishes to be “secret.” The Pentagon Papers, Watergate, the Iran-Contra affair and the existence of clandestine CIA prisons are examples in which secret government information was leaked to and publicized by the news media. In these and in many other cases, the dissemination of secret information served a greater good to American society by informing the public and by allowing for a needed debate on the ethics of secret government policies and covert actions. We believe that a democracy shrouded in secrecy encourages corruption, and we agree, as Justice Louis D. Brandeis of the U.S. Supreme Court said, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
The statement then goes on to outline the current approach:
AEJMC, therefore, calls attention to the current administration’s zeal in prosecuting those in government who leak secret information. Only three times in its first 92 years was the Espionage Act of 1917 used to prosecute government officials for leaking secret information to the press. However, the current administration has already brought six charges under this Act. The accused in all of these cases appear to represent whistleblowers, not those engaged in attempted espionage for foreign governments that “aid the enemy.”
Huge difference between giving information to an enemy spy and leaking it to the press — at least if you live in a democracy where press freedom is seen as an important check on the power of the government. But the current administration isn’t acknowledging that difference:
We caution that the prosecution of U.S. Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, who released a trove of secret data to the WikiLeaks website, appears to be excessively punitive, with a chilling effect on a democracy’s requisite freedom of speech and the press. The release of this information advanced and clarified public debate on the morality of U.S. policy. Some observers even suggest that the honest (albeit secret) diplomatic assessments of Middle Eastern regimes helped spark the Arab Spring. Pfc. Bradley Manning has already admitted in military court that he did break the law through his actions. But to accuse him of “aiding the enemy” is egregious, given his credible stated intentions and the global breadth of the dissemination.
The government’s current approach toward leak prosecutions sends a message to the rest of the world that the United States’ actions are not fully aligned with its stated “exceptional” commitment to freedom of speech and the press as a human right
Great point. We can’t just go around lecturing the world about the value of a free press and then prosecute an important part of its function here at home. The statement concludes with suggestion for future action
Therefore, in recognition of the historical benefits of leaked information to our nation and to the principles and values of democracy, in particular the freedom of speech and the press, AEJMC calls on the U.S. government to make prosecutions as rare as possible, to consider the credible intent of the accused in these prosecutions, and to seek punishment that is proportionate and commensurate, not only with credible intent, but also with resulting harm and benefit to our democracy, its principles and values. Furthermore, we ask that prosecutors consider reviewing existing press leak cases in light of the public good and the First Amendment. AEJMC believes that this will ensure an environment in which the public will continue to be served through the occasional leaking of secret information by those whose credible intent was the public good.
Note that the statement doesn’t call for the absolute prohibition of prosecution of press leaks — however, we certainly feel that they should far more rare than they are right now.
The president of AEJMC, the presidential advisory committee, and the Professional Freedom and Responsibility Chairs of each division (including myself, Media Ethics Division) helped draft the statement. I’m proud that we as a group are standing strongly for press freedom and that we live in a country where such speech is protected and valued.