Freedom of the press when it’s not free: reporting under censorship, from Qatar to Canada

By Jessica Davey-Quantick

I know exactly how many inches over the knee you have to photoshop a woman’s shorts to get it on the cover of a magazine in the Persian Gulf. For five years, I wrote in code. A Harley Davidson was never a “hog.” ‘Sex and the City” became a string of letters, SATC. And when I interviewed Antonio Banderas I had to explain why his movie about a swashbuckling feline would now be called “Cat in Boots.” I wrote “hops” or “malt beverage” instead of beer and, in one shining moment, “pitchers of traditional Spanish fruit beverage” instead of sangria.

Between 2008 and 2013, I was working as a journalist in Doha, Qatar, a country where, when I first arrived, imported copies of American Cosmo arrived at the stands sporting black marker scribbles over bare midriffs. In my five years in the Middle East, I spun the wheel of censorship, as the rules changed almost every day and were rarely written down. All businesses in Qatar must have a Qatari owner, a sponsor; mine controlled not just my ability to enter or leave the country, but also what my magazine could print. Before the draft of the magazine could go to press, it had to go under his red pen. When I switched to a magazine printed in the UAE and imported into Qatar, the rules changed, but the stakes were just as high: step out of line and my work wouldn’t cross the border. Welcome to the mind-bending world of working under censorship.

According to a 2014 report by Freedom House, only 14 percent of the world’s population enjoys a free press: meaning that only one in seven people live, as they put it, “in countries where coverage of political news is robust, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs is minimal, and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures.” According to Reporters Without Borders, there has been a drastic decline in recent years in freedom of information. In fact, in the most recent World Press Freedom Index, two thirds of the 180 countries surveyed performed less well than in the previous year. Freedom House found that global press freedom declined in 2014 to the lowest point in more than 10 years.

freedom house copy

Press freedom map, according to a report by Freedom House.

Which means, for working journalists around the globe, chances of working in a newsroom where there are controls on the press are higher than ever. But it’s not necessarily a case of more overt control.

“I haven’t experienced any sort of ‘you can or can’t write about anything,’ at all. There are no written rules anywhere that I’ve worked that say that,” says Bilal Randeree, a South African journalist who worked as an editor on the Al Jazeera English website. “That said, there are sensitive topics and there are unwritten rules. I think that results in what is perceived as censorship. But no professional journalist, myself or anyone that I’ve ever worked with, has intentionally hidden or dropped a story that had enough information.”

The line between cultural sensitivity and censorship is culturally relative. The best stories are done by journalists who are not parachuted into a space, but rather fully understand the cultural realities and sensitivities of the community they work in. This knowledge enables journalists to dig deeper, but it may also make it harder to report ethically. Control doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and carries over from the movie theatre where a kiss is chopped out of the film, to a labor system that allows me to have a Filipina maid clean my apartment. Is it possible for journalists to inhabit unethical spaces and still do ethical work?

Randeree thinks I’m asking the wrong question.

“It’s taking the position to say that we, a certain group of people, are otherwise ethical and face this conundrum of living in a place where there is racism and oppression and having to struggle through it, making a very complex issue very black-and-white and taking the moral high ground on it. I think any society that you live in, there are injustices and there are imbalances and there are issues that need dealing with, and the priority of those issues are tainted by our cultural baggage,” he says. “If you’re only doing it in Qatar when it’s stark and in your face, then the problem is not the place. Actually, it’s you.”

I agree. The point is not that censorship happens in isolated areas of ethical ambiguity; the fact is, it happens everywhere, in different ways. And, as the World Press Freedom index indicates, it’s getting worse. Many journalists are already living in ethically ambiguous spaces, perhaps without even realizing it.

“Freedom is messy. Democracy is messy. And I don’t know that we want it messy. We operate under this drug-induced haze that we are in fact democratic and people really believe it,” says Kim Kierans, vice president of the University of King’s College and former director of the journalism school. “Think about how the media is almost an arm of government in the sense that certain media companies are beholden on the government for renewal of licenses, for advertising, for subsidies, to get access to important political figures. There’s compromises being made. Even here in North America, journalists make compromises. There are very few really free journalists,”

Kierans spent time training journalists in countries including Cambodia, Thailand, Russia and the Philippines as an adjunct at the Konrad Adenauer Asian Centre for Journalism at Ateneo de Manila University in addition to teaching Canadian journalists. She’s also starting to see the similarities between working as a journalist in those places, and working in North America. “I’m ashamed of quite a lot of the journalism that goes on in the United States. I’m ashamed sometimes of the journalism that goes on in Canada,” she says. “How we don’t question various things, we’re prepared to give up freedoms of press, and how we’re not challenging things more.”

Tony Burman agrees. He served as Al Jazeera English’s managing director, and spent 35 years at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, including a year as managing director of CBC Newsworld. He attributes the decline of press freedom to the power of the public broadcaster, and what happens when we lose that. Commercial intrusion can be just as insidious as official government-sanctioned censorship, or unofficial culturally sensitive self-censorship. In many ways, at least in that respect, places like Qatar are more honest: they lay out the dirty laundry where everyone can see it. As journalism increasingly becomes a business, journalists become more and more beholden to ad revenue, which is dictated by click-throughs and stand sales. It just may be harder to see than when a journalist has to write “bubbly” instead of champagne.

But business intrusions don’t stop with click-bait: increasingly, public broadcasters like the CBC are finding their funding slashed. In fact, recently leaked documents from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade talks, which opened in Hawaii last month, revealed that the TPP includes caveats that Crown corporations—like the CBC—operate solely for profit under the deal’s terms, so as not to give them an unfair advantage over for-profit foreign ventures. Where this gets complicated is the blurring of industry and government: Canada’s Conservative government, under Stephen Harper, is pushing for the TPP in the lead-up to the federal election on October 19.

“During my period in Doha, I felt that there was a firewall between the government and Al Jazeera. If anything I felt there was more attempted intervention or intrusion on the part of the Canadian government on the CBC than there actually was by the Qatari government on Al Jazeera,” Burman says.

In fact, government control of Canadian media is an issue currently being tackled by the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. They initiated a Charter challenge in July against Bill C-51, a bill that includes changes to national security, anti-terrorism and privacy law in Canada. Among other things in the bill are amendments to the criminal code that create a new offence for promoting “terrorism in general” and create a new concept of “terrorist propaganda.” The bill could, for example, be used to allow a judge to order deletion of material from the Internet, and open publications up to prosecution for aiding and abetting terrorism by publishing certain kinds of articles or sharing stories about groups that the government lists as organizations participating in “activity that undermines the security of Canada.” Under C-51, this would include groups, often Indigenous, now labeled as “anti-petroleum” terrorists and other environmental activists. It could also potentially be applied to journalists who criticize too loudly. This sounds surprisingly reminiscent of press laws in other countries, including Qatar, where Article 46 of the Press Law states that,“The Emir of the state of Qatar shall not be criticized and no statement can be attributed to him unless under a written permission from the manager of his office.”

But at least in Qatar you can talk to the Emir. An article in the Toronto Star details how, since taking power, Stephen Harper has muzzled the media by simply not talking to them. In 2011, during his last campaign, he imposed a five-question daily limit on journalists travelling with his campaign tour. Since then, the Conservative Prime Minister ordered Commons security guards to keep journalists from congregating, as long-held tradition had it, outside cabinet meetings for informal scrums, and roped media into special waiting areas to keep them away from members of parliament.

Nationally, the Prime Minister’s Office also demands that journalists put their names on a list in order to ask a question at a Harper press conference, which gives the office much more control over who gets to ask a question at all. When Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot visited Ottawa in 2014, Harper allowed just four questions—and only two from Canadian journalists. Increasingly, press conferences are “photo opportunity only”: as reported by Vice, this means that security has prevented journalists from asking questions, removed them from events, and even prevented them entering at all.

And it’s not just journalists. As the Conservative election campaign intensifies, any Canadian who wants to see the Prime Minister at any of his events must be vetted by the party and receive a bar-coded ticket. Which is actually fairly lenient, considering they only recently removed, under public pressure, the caveat that ticket holders were not allowed to transmit or aid in transmission “any description, account, picture or reproduction of the event.”

Whether it’s in Qatar, Thailand or Canada, this is all about controlling the message: Far more often than shutting down the press entirely, more governments are opening themselves up to journalists—in carefully constructed, controlled ways, using reporters as a message-crafting tool. This is especially crucial as the Internet puts everything in a spotlight; regimes like Qatar, for example, in order to function on the world stage need legitimacy. My being there, and reporting on things like brunches and bar nights, paints a very rosy picture of what life there is really like, and makes it easier for the world and governments to ignore the realities for the majority of the population.

Do reporters continuing to write stories about potholes in Cambodia or festivals in Thailand allow for plausible deniability of the very real problems that are left out of the reporting? And does choosing not to report on a protest over a pipeline in Alberta tacitly agree with the government stance? These may seem like new and complex problems, but they’re not. In every controlled regime, from Nazi Germany to Conservative Canada, it ultimately boils down to one very simple question: should journalists stay and report what little they can, or leave?

“I think it’s difficult. I think ultimately one has to do what one can do. An individual journalist cannot kind of change the world,” says Burman. He says change has to start from the top, with strong leadership willing to stand up for the actions of individual journalists, and set an ethical example for young journalists to learn from. “I think ultimately people have got to be clear in their own mind. If they’re forced to cross a line … then that’s the time to pack up and do something else.”

Kierans disagrees. “If you give up and there is no information shared about community, then what you’re doing is you’re giving control to a tyranny that can’t last. My view is that people in communities need to be told about what’s going on about them. And the more information they have, whether it’s political or not the better it is,” she says. “Maybe you don’t do a lot of political stuff, maybe you’re doing the human interest stuff. But everything in a sense is political! Sports is political, arts is political. It’s all political. How you frame it is the trick. How you tell the story and how you educate a public to want more of it. I used to talk a lot about that democracy is essential to a free press, and then I said ‘well how can I teach journalism to people from Vietnam or Cambodia or anywhere that has restrictions on the press?’ and then I thought ‘no no no, you give them the tools of story telling. You teach them about story, and the value of story.’ Story can be subversive over time.”

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Editor’s Note—Jessica Davey-Quantick on her choice of subject for her feature article: “In my time at FASPE, I started to feel like the most unethical person in the room. I was the editor of two magazines in Qatar, Qatar Happening and Time Out Doha.  As we discussed the actions and roles of journalists during the Holocaust, a few questions kept coming up: Why did they stay? Why didn’t they leave? Why didn’t they shout? I found I couldn’t leave the discussion in the conference room: I kept wondering, why did I stay in Qatar. I wanted to find out: Was it possible to be ethical in a controlled space? I wanted to answer this question not just as it related to Qatar or other places officially described as ‘not free’ by multiple media watchdogs, but as it applied everywhere. Once you’ve worked under some sort of control, whether it’s coming from the government or from advertisers, it gets easier to see censorship’s sticky fingerprints on everything. Some measure of control is something I feel more and more journalists are going to face in their careers. How can we navigate that?”

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